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The mysterious and elusive unicorn can be seen throughout Western art. What is it about the mythical beasts that has such enduring appeal, asks Alastair Sooke.
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Have you ever seen a unicorn? I don’t mean in a painting or a tapestry, or in the form of a piece of glittery merchandise marketed at young girls. I’m talking about an actual unicorn, ie a horse-like creature with cloven hooves and a goat’s tufty beard, and, of course, a long, spiralling horn – their most recognisable characteristic – erupting from its forehead. Because I have. Or, at least, I can say, hand on heart, that I’ve seen a unicorn’s horn. I came across one recently in Paris, in an exhibition at the Musée de Cluny, which has a spellbinding collection of medieval art. 

There it was, spot-lit and mounted on a dark bronze base: a tapering piece of tawny ivory, spiralling upwards for several feet. The base was designed by a postmodern American sculptor, Saint Clair Cemin, who was inspired by a pedestal in the form of a unicorn’s head, conceived by the Italian Renaissance goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini for a similar horn that once belonged to Pope Clement VII. 

People in Western Europe during the Middle Ages believed that rare and exotic narwhal tusks were unicorn horns

Except, of course, the piece of ivory in the Cluny’s exhibition – and, presumably, the one that belonged to that 16th Century Pope – never protruded from a unicorn’s skull. If it had, the poor animal would have found it difficult to eat, because whenever he (traditionally, unicorns were almost always male) dipped his head to graze, the tip of his horn would have stuck in the turf, preventing him from munching on a single blade of grass. 

Saint Clair Cemin’s sculpture holds the helical tusk of a narwhal (Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery)

Saint Clair Cemin’s sculpture holds the helical tusk of a narwhal (Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery)

 

In fact, the ‘unicorn’s horn’ on display at the Cluny Museum is the helical tusk of a narwhal, a cetacean found in Arctic waters off Greenland, Russia, and Canada. The most distinctive characteristic of the male of the species is its long ‘tusk’ – actually, a protruding canine tooth, which can grow up to 10ft (3.5m) in length. And, according to Béatrice de Chancel-Bardelot, the curator of the Cluny’s exhibition, Magical Unicorns, people in Western Europe during the Middle Ages believed that rare and exotic narwhal tusks were unicorn horns. Accordingly, they were highly prized. 

How did narwhal tusks end up in Europe? In Greenland, where they occasionally washed up on beaches, local people recognised that there could be a market further afield for these strange and substantial pieces of ivory. As a result, narwhal tusks entered Europe, via a trading network that passed through Scandinavia, eventually becoming prestigious objects, coveted by princes and popes, even though they didn’t know what they were. 

Italian merchant and explorer Marco Polo travelled to Asia and saw rhinoceroses, which he believed were unicorns

Who could blame them? Few Europeans had clapped eyes on a narwhal – and so, confronted with these long, mysterious ‘horns’, scholars turned to ancient texts, seeking clarity. Erroneously, they assumed that they must have come from the Monoceros, the Greek name for a one-horned beast described by, for instance, the 1st Century Roman writer Pliny the Elder, as “a very fierce animal” with a horse’s body, the head of a stag, an elephant’s feet, and the tail of a boar. Supposedly, said Pliny, the Monoceros emitted a deep bellow, and had a single black horn, almost 3ft (0.9m) long, projecting from the middle of its forehead. Oh, and it was impossible, he wrote, to capture one alive. Today, scholars believe that he was describing a rhinoceros. The Latin for Monoceros is Unicornis, from which our word, unicorn, derives. 

By the 12th Century, narwhal tusks were already thought to be unicorn horns. Valued as wonders of nature, they were kept in church treasuries, and sometimes used to make candlesticks. One twisting example, more than 6ft (1.8m) long, documented in the treasury of the Abbey of Saint-Denis by the end of the 15th Century, is the earliest exhibit in the Cluny’s show. 

 

Sans titre (Licorne), Miguel Branco. The connotation of purity may explain why the unicorn is often white (Credit: Collection Victor Pinto da Fonseca)

Sans titre (Licorne), Miguel Branco. The connotation of purity may explain why the unicorn is often white (Credit: Collection Victor Pinto da Fonseca)

As the Middle Ages wore on, ‘unicorn horns’ fascinated scholars who were increasingly interested in natural history. Many medieval encyclopaedias and bestiaries – including some 13th Century examples on display at the Cluny – illustrate unicorns, providing the earliest instances of unicorns in Western art. When the Italian merchant and explorer Marco Polo travelled to Asia, he saw rhinoceroses, which he believed were unicorns: “He was a little disappointed,” says Chancel-Bardelot, “because they weren’t white, and their horns were short and thick, unlike the long, beautiful, spiralled tusk of the narwhal.” Still, people came to think that the unicorn – which is also mentioned in the Bible, where, says Chancel-Bardelot, it is a “wild and menacing animal” – lived far away, in eastern lands. During the 15th Century, a canon of Mainz cathedral recounted that, during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he had spotted a unicorn, among other strange animals, in the Sinai Desert. 

Supposedly, only a virgin maiden could tempt a unicorn into captivity

Over time, the unicorn accrued various associations. Its horns were said to have magical powers: they could bring water to the boil, or, if dipped into a drink or added to food, detoxify poison (13th Century Arabic medicine already used them as an antidote). This explains why they appealed to paranoid rulers throughout Europe. Unicorn horns were also said to purify water. The Cluny show contains a striking copper-alloy ewer, or water container, from c1400, cast in the shape of a unicorn, used for the symbolic washing of hands during mass or before a meal. 

 

This 15th Century water container was used for the symbolic washing of hands during mass or before a meal (Credit: MN-Grand Palais)

This 15th Century water container was used for the symbolic washing of hands during mass or before a meal (Credit: MN-Grand Palais)

This association with purity extended to female sexuality, too. Supposedly, only a virgin maiden could tempt a unicorn into captivity; otherwise, they had a reputation as elusive beasts, too swift to be caught. (As late as the 20th Century, a French car manufacturer produced an automobile known as the Licorne – French for unicorn – playing on the creature’s legendary speed.) Consequently, the unicorn – despite the potentially phallic nature of its defining characteristic – became a symbol of chastity and feminine purity. In the late Middle Ages, unicorns were used as emblems by various princesses and noblewomen. In 1447, for instance, the Italian artist Pisanello created a portrait medal of Cecilia Gonzaga, daughter of the first marquess of Mantua, featuring a unicorn as a symbol of her chastity. 

This connotation of purity may explain why the unicorn is often white. That said, its appearance could change, depending on where it was depicted. During the Middle Ages, Italian unicorns looked like goats or even camels, with shaggy fur, while, in German-speaking countries, the unicorn often had a brown or dappled coat. In a sense, this shape-shifting quality is unsurprising, given that the unicorn is a composite beast that exists only in the imagination. 

 

This tapestry, from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, shows a small white unicorn leaping onto the lap of the Virgin Mary (Credit: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection)

This tapestry, from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, shows a small white unicorn leaping onto the lap of the Virgin Mary (Credit: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection)

Local variations could change the unicorn’s meaning, too: a tapestry in the Cluny’s exhibition, on loan from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, reveals that, in the Rhine Valley during the 15th and 16th Centuries, the hunt of the unicorn became associated with the Annunciation. In the tapestry, we see the Archangel Gabriel blowing a horn and holding a hunting dog upon a leash, while a small white unicorn leaps onto the lap of the Virgin Mary, seated in an enclosed garden. The unicorn is thus, says Chancel-Bardelot, “associated with Christ and his purity, free of sin.” 

According to Chancel-Bardelot, however, the true “golden age” of the unicorn in Western European art coincided with the late Middle Ages, in the 14th and 15th Centuries – the period that gave birth to the Cluny’s greatest treasure, The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. An elegant white unicorn appears in every one of the six exquisite tapestries in the set. Each also features an opulently dressed noblewoman, accompanied by a lion and (mostly) a lady-in-waiting, all floating against a rich, red background, full of flowering plants and various other animals, including monkeys and rabbits. The meaning of the sixth tapestry, which contains a tent bearing the cryptic inscription Mon Seul Désir (My Sole Desire), continues to be debated today. Scholars agree, though, that the tapestries were woven around 1500 – by which time, the unicorn had become a popular element in heraldry (it is, for example, the national animal of Scotland). The Cloisters museum in New York also boasts a beautiful set of seven magnificent Unicorn Tapestries, likewise probably designed in Paris at the turn of the 16th Century. 

 

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries were rediscovered in the 19th Century (Credit: RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de Cluny - Musée National du Moyen Âge) / M Urtado)

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries were rediscovered in the 19th Century (Credit: RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de Cluny - Musée National du Moyen Âge) / M Urtado)

It seems that we are living through another golden age of the unicorn

During the Renaissance, however, scepticism grew concerning the miraculous properties of unicorn horns. In the 16th Century, the surgeon Ambroise Paré, court physician to four French kings, rubbished the idea that a unicorn’s horn had any medicinal effect. Unicorns still occasionally popped up in art: at the start of the 17th Century, a beautiful example appeared in the monumental fresco cycle executed by Annibale Carracci and his studio for the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. But, as belief in the existence of this mythical beast waned, so the golden age of the unicorn came to an end. 

Things changed, though, in the final decades of the 19th Century, with the rediscovery of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, which inspired artists such as the French Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau. In 1887, five years after the tapestries had been acquired by the Cluny Museum, Moreau completed his sensuous canvas The Unicorns. More than half a century later, during the 1950s, the French polymath Jean Cocteau conceived and designed a ballet also inspired by the Cluny’s tapestries. 

Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips riding a fake unicorn on stage is just one example of the recent resurgence of unicorns in popular culture (Credit: Getty)

Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips riding a fake unicorn on stage is just one example of the recent resurgence of unicorns in popular culture (Credit: Getty)

 

As for today, it seems that we are living through another golden age of the unicorn. Look around: one-horned creatures now pervade popular culture. Sparkly unicorns, decorating everything from toys to T-shirts, are wildly popular among pre-teen girls in Europe and the United States: every day, my five-year-old daughter rides to school on a scooter decorated with a plastic model of a unicorn’s head, with a stubby yellow horn, turquoise coat, and pink mane. Like the rainbow flag, the unicorn is an important symbol internationally for the LGBT community. The significance of an origami unicorn, which appears at the end of Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner, has been endlessly debated. On Instagram, the hashtag #unicorn had 10.5m posts at the time of writing. 

Thanks to the mythical creature’s associations with rarity, purity, and perfection, the word unicorn has also taken on new meanings in recent years. In Silicon Valley, a unicorn is a start-up valued at more than $1 billion (ie a business that has experienced phenomenally rapid growth). A unicorn wine is a bottle that is rare and difficult to find, and so highly prized among sommeliers and connoisseurs. The word even has currency today as a piece of sexual slang: in this context, a unicorn is someone (usually, a bisexual woman) who sleeps with couples. So much for the unicorn’s age-old association with virginity. 

In short, the unicorn, that most elusive of imaginary beasts, remains in rude health, millennia after it was first described by ancient writers. As a tongue-in-cheek wall text puts it towards the end of the Cluny Museum’s exhibition, “While the existence of the animal has been debated by scientists since the 16th Century, the risk of extinction is not an immediate concern.”

Alastair Sooke is The Telegraph’s Critic-at-Large

Magiques Licornes is at Musée de Cluny until 25 February 2019.

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