The Jesus-unicorn is a cornerstone of classic medieval and renaissance unicorn iconography. Today we’re going to get to some delightful, slightly wacky versions.
“Jesus-unicorn?” you may say with bewilderment. “How does Jesus fit into the unicorn story of virgins tempting wild beasts into their laps, only to be slaughtered by hunters?”
It’s pretty simple if you think about it like a medieval person, where the natural world is structured to reinforce theological concepts.
Essentially: the unicorn, representing purity, healing, the supernatural, can only be called into contact with the profane world of humanity through the spiritual integrity of a virgin is the same as Jesus (healer of mankind and son of God) being born of the faultless virgin Mary. While the unicorn’s virgin and Mary are both guiltless themselves, they live in a morally compromised world, one that is hostile to the unicorn/Jesus. Whereas the virgin is aligned with the Jesus-unicorn’s healing, male hunters are violent and deadly.
In the image below from the Ormesby Psalter, for example, we can see the virgin raising her hand in distress.
Things never go well for the unicorn. In the famous fifteenth-century Unicorn Tapestries, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the unicorn is brutally killed and taken to the castle. He even has his horn – the source of magical healing – cut off. Allegorically, the hunters, like the persecutors of Jesus, prioritize the wrong thing. They kill the healer and consider themselves triumphant, bearing his body to the site of secular power.
In the last and most famous tapestry of the series, the unicorn is magically alive again (parallel to the resurrection of Jesus). Though he still bears the wounds of his attack, the unicorn resides peacefully in a garden that resembles paradise. Essentially, the message is that you can’t really kill the unicorn or Jesus; both are more powerful than mankind’s ability to hurt.
So far, this is “Unicorn 101” stuff. Which is why we’re going to look at some quirky alternatives to the elegance of the Met’s Unicorn Tapestries.
The next three images are a more obvious use of allegory in presenting the Jesus-unicorn…and are therefore more confusing. Perhaps this has to do with the way the weavers approach time. In the Ormesby Psalter illustration the entire story of Jesus is compressed into one moment of time: his arrival on earth (being in Mary’s lap) and his death (the attack by soldiers) happens at the same time. In the Unicorn Tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the story is segmented and linear.
In the images below, we have – like in the Ormesby Psalter – a compression of time, with the Jesus-unicorn caught between a soldier and a virgin. But the composition is a little kooky. Can you see why?
Instead of having the virgin as an inherent attraction or reason to approach mankind, with actual men as the aggressors, here we have the Archangel Gabriel as the hunter. What? Yes…Gabriel is dressed up in hunting gear, with dogs, a trumpet, and (in two of the images) a spear. And he’s chasing the unicorn. As a result, the unicorn is running, full throttle, with his horn down, at Mary.
In the first image, we can only imagine the family dynamics in Heaven which have led to this situation. “You…will…join…humankind!!!” we hear Gabriel shrieking between toots of his trumpet. “Your dad…told…you…so!!!” The Jesus-unicorn is so unwilling it takes some scary dogs to convince him to finish his chores.
Mary’s expression is the real delight. Here, Mary has her hand raised in a futile attempt to ward off her oncoming animal friend. Her hair is flying back at the force of the impact. Her eyes are wide open and her mouth is round in hopeless anxiety. Gabriel is supposed to be announcing soothing Mary’s fears by saying something along the lines of “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God…Surprise, thou art pregnant” (that’s a loose paraphrase of Luke 1:30-31). But whatever Gabriel’s saying, Mary doesn’t seem the least soothed.
In this next tapestry, both Gabriel and Mary are much calmer.
Possibly this is because Gabriel’s long robes aren’t quite right for hunting so he’s not that much in a hurry. Mary has obviously had enough time to plan her reaction, because she seems to be deploying some judo or tae-kwon-do. With one hand on the unicorn’s horn and the other on his foreleg, she’s going to bring him up short and maybe flip him into a docile pose. Perhaps her move will even turn him into a baby. Anyways, this Mary is a pro. Her look of resignation is that of a practiced unicorn-flipper.
Lastly, we have a true return to form in the woodcut below.
Again, Gabriel, the dogs, and the unicorn are going at full throttle. The unicorn has his horn aimed right at Mary’s womb, as if he’s planning to transfigure himself into a fetus in a moment or two. As if to remind us what’s happening, full-grown man-Jesus is looking down at the proceedings from above and giving it his blessing. Mary has her arms up in what is now the international sign for choking but was then a sign of prayerful acceptance. At least she’s ready for it?
After all of these high-energy, anxiety-provoking representations of the Jesus-unicorn, let’s end with a more calming portrait Madonna and Child:
This unicorn’s horn is pointed down, and out of any danger. His hoofs are in her lap, her arm is around his neck. He and the virgin gaze at each other in a moment of calm. The hunter hasn’t found them yet.