This woodcut is an example of religious critique from a position of faith. The unicorn, who symbolizes purity — and Jesus — tips over the pope’s crown. The crown, or papal tiara, no longer signals divine authority but the use of institutional religion to bolster earthly power and hierarchy. We see the pope setting himself over an ordinary peasant parishioner as he hears confession. In this configuration, the pope’s role is to absolve the commoner of his sins. But the commoner is on the same level as the unicorn — he shouldn’t need anyone’s intervention to pray or to access God. This woodcut is from the early Reformation, when followers of Martin Luther were challenging the authority of the Catholic Church. This unicorn is definitely on the side of the emerging Protestants. In our day, the image is still resonant, speaking to the triumph of truth over institutional power, abuse, or corruption. Perhaps the tippiness of the papal tiara is why modern popes since 1964 have chosen to wear the more-difficult-to-dislodge skullcap?
Image citation: Erhard Schoen, not before 1491-1542. A Unicorn Dislodges the Pope’s Tiara. 1527. http://library.artstor.org.ezproxy.library.tamu.edu/asset/BARTSCH_6040064. Web. 15 Aug 2018.