The origins of the fabled unicorn are perhaps as difficult to pinpoint as the evasive characteristics accorded to this mythical beast. Tales from ancient Greece recounted such animals existing in distant lands, while mis-translations of the Old Testament can account for the word ‘unicorn’ – likely produced when rendering this section of the bible from Hebrew to Greek. 

Over time, unicorns came to symbolise Christ, as a spiritual entity embraced by a virgin perhaps reminded the viewer of Jesus in the arms of his mother as a child and also following his death by crucifixion. These horned creature also represent virtue, chastity, purity, magic, royalty and an unquantifiable divine nurturing presence.

References: Matilde Battistini, Symbols and Allegories in Art, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2002.

Exhibition on Unicorns in Medieval and Renaissance Art Marks 75th Anniversary of The CloistersMay 15–August 18, 2013, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

Unicorns, West and East, American Museum of Natural History, New York. 

Images: Raffaello Sanzio, Lady with a Unicorn, 1505, oil on wood, 65 x 51 cm,
Galleria Borghese, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

Moretto da Brescia, Saint Justina with the Unicorn, c. 1530-1534, oil on panel, 200 x 139 cm, Museum of Art History, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.

Domenichino (working under Annibale Carracci), The Virgin with the Unicorn, 1604-1605, fresco, Palazzo Farnese, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

Unknown, A Woman with a Unicorn, c. 1506 – 1522, fresco, Castello Rocca Farnese, Carbognano. Private Collection.

Alessandro Varatari (Il Padovanino), Orpheus Enchanting the Animals, 17th Century, oil on canvas, 165 x 108 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Jacopo Tintoretto, Creation of the Animals, c. 1551-1552, oil on canvas, 151 x 258 cm, Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice. Wikimedia Commons.

Raffaello Sanzio, Creation of the Animals, 1519-1519, fresco,Musei Vaticani, Vatican City, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

Piero della Francesca, Reverse of the Portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, Trionfo di Federico da Montefeltro e di Battista Sforza, c.1465 – 1472, oil on panel, 47 cm × 33 cm, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Giambologna, La Grotta degli Animali, 16th Century, marble, Villa Medicea dei Castello, Florence. Wikimedia Commons

Bottega di Apollonio di Giovanni e Marco del Buono, I Trionfi, c.1450 – 1460, tempera on wood, 41 x 141 cm, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence.

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