Unicorns in Art

Woman with Unicorn, image is public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia

Woman with Unicorn, image is public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia.

The Naked Truth: Deconstructing Assumptions of Purity and Unicorns in Art

 

Today, there seems to be a universal fascination with unicorns. With unicorn-themed birthday parties, tee-shirts, water bottles, and even television shows starring unicorn protagonists at an all-time high, the enchantment with these mythological creatures has important historical roots as well. The portrayal of the unicorn has changed over time, one idea has remained constant: people love the idea of a horse with a horn.

 

With the cultural depiction of the unicorn evolving over time, various symbolic traditions have emerged across eras and cultures. One particularly fascinating connection exists between the representation of women, purity, and yes, you guessed it, unicorns. And before the age of TV and commercialized party favors, art served as a principal vehicle of cultural influence.

Fresco by Domenichino, c. 1604–05 (Palazzo Farnese, Rome), Image is public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia
Fresco by Domenichino, c. 1604–05 (Palazzo Farnese, Rome), Image is public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia.

When understanding portrayals of the unicorn in art, it’s best to start with French medieval tapestries. These notable rug-like creations portray intimate scenes set amongst foliage and trees. These tapestries feature a unique blend of domesticity; a rug or bed might be seamlessly juxtaposed with naturalistic elements such as trees and leaves. This invites viewers to engage their imagination in new ways. But the imagination doesn’t stop there—these tapestries generally include a woman, often exuding a sense of royalty, placed directly next to a lion or unicorn.

 

One of the most famous medieval French tapestries, The Lady and the Unicorn (La Dame à la licorne), includes six pieces that were first discovered and brought to the public eye in the 19th century. This series was made famous in our modern-day context during a brief but notable appearance in the Harry Potter movies. The particular unicorn seen in The Lady and the Unicorn is often referred to as a heraldic creature, representing an animal used in family genealogy to represent qualities of virtue, purity, and strength.

The Lady , The Unicorn, Image is public doman courtesy of Wikimedia
The Lady and the Unicorn. Image is public doman courtesy of Wikimedia.

You may wonder why the unicorn was chosen to be depicted alongside the ‘Lady’ in this French tapestry series—it is no accident. With a handful of exceptions, since its first appearance in the public eye, the unicorn has almost always been depicted next to a conventionally beautiful, virginal woman. This visual depiction was perpetuated as the unicorn itself became the symbol of purity, healing, and virtue.
 

Eventually, unicorns were known for their affinity to virgin women. Through countless visual representations, it became evident that the only humans allowed near unicorns were these desirably pure, young women. Through art, a connection was formed between the virgin woman and the unicorn as the quintessence of untouchable chastity.
 

Though unicorns were often depicted alongside the innocent virgin, they were simultaneously oversexualized in legends and myths throughout the medieval Christian world.  As a Filthy article states, “In all of Western history, no beast has been more significant to the imagination and more prominent in literature and art than the unicorn, and none has added a more sexually revealing and universally meaningful legend to the lore of the human race.”

 

The article goes on to recount a disturbing mythological legend that became popularized throughout the Renaissance and into the Middle Ages. I’ll spare you the details—but this legend stated that unicorns required the touch of a virgin, a “symbolic act of taming,” to capture the untamable beast. Gross.

Lady with unicorn, Rafael Santi, Image is public doman, courtesy of Wikimedia
Lady with unicorn, Rafael Santi. Image is public doman, courtesy of Wikimedia.

In today’s context, not much has changed. Women are still expected to embody these contradictory ideals–they must be innocent, alluring, hot, cute, and sexually experienced, but not too promiscuous either. The symbolism of unicorns has remained much the same as well.

 

While many social expectations of women and unicorns were continuously reinforced through visual representations in art, as time progressed, opinions based on cultural norms evolved alongside them. In this, an evident shift in the symbolism surrounding women, purity, and unicorns in art occurred as well. While the connection between women and unicorns may still exist, it seems a more modern-day context offers for a broader range of themes including female strength and resilience.

 

The connection between women, femininity, and the unicorn is a captivating example of how artistic symbols evolve and change over time.  The simultaneously virginal and sexualized symbolism of the unicorn has been influential in art and society for centuries. In all of its limiting ideals of purity and virtue, the contemporary depiction of the unicorn seems to embody a more light-hearted, less antiquated approach to womanhood—one of evolution and a newfound sense of belonging.


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