Offbeat Unicorn

For those who like unicorns with sharp hooves and mystery

Prepare for the unexpected…

Awww, yeah! Chillin’ with my unicorn pal!

In order to appreciate this image, we need a recap on what the wild woman and unicorn are not. They are not normal representations of virgin and unicorn. You know, Sweet and kind of banal…

Giorgione. “Woman with Unicorn/Saint Justine/Personification of Chastity.” ca. 1510. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

And also a gory betrayal of innocence…

Some men want to catch a unicorn, so they convince a girl to go out into the forest. The unicorn comes to hang out with its new girl-pal and WHAM! The unicorn meets its end. Sometimes, you can clearly tell the maiden is in cahoots with the men. See below:  

Unknown. A Unicorn with its Head in the Lap of a Maiden. fourth quarter of 13th century (after 1277). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig XV 4, fol. 85v.

Despite the adoring face on this unicorn, the maiden is giving it mad side-eye. She seems to be pleased at what’s happening inches away from her blue robe.

Occasionally, though, you get the sense that the maiden is not very happy with her role in slaughtering an innocent beast:


Bestiary, whole page, Folio/Page #: fol. 014r. 13th century, second quarter. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/.

In the picture above, the maiden seems to be giving the shocked unicorn a belated warning, as in “I told you so!” In the image below, the maiden seems to be raising her hand in protest, as if saying, “Dude, this is not the deal!” I especially enjoy that the unicorn looks like a weird pig-wolf with a horn – a reminder how fluid the unicorn’s form was through most of history!

Bestiary., Folio #: fol. 018r. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/.

According to Christian iconography, the unicorn, maiden, and hunters represent the coming of Christ to the Virgin and Christ’s subsequent self-sacrifice. However, if you’ve been reading the captions, though, you’ll notice that these images are from bestiaries, rather than psalters or specifically religious texts. Of course, medieval Christian bestiaries were influenced by Christian theology, but there are occasional exceptions.

The next image takes a decidedly secular approach, because the maiden is nekkid.

Bestiary., whole page, Folio/Page #: fol. 070r. c. 13th century, middle. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/.

This woman is not wild, but neither is she a maiden. In The Natural History of Unicorns, Chris Lavers notes that the influential bestiary Physiologus has, in its Syriac translation, a more earthy version of the encounter between girl and beast, which includes nudity and, er, close physical contact. Lavers summarizes the climax of the scene: “the girl reaches out and grasps the unicorn’s horn, after which his wild and carefree days appear to be over” (72).

But this scene still ends with the unicorn being wounded, killed, or captured by men who have engaged the girl’s services. Either she’s complicit in the violence, or she’s also a victim.

Not fair! Don’t you wish there was an alternative?

Which brings us to these two unusual, seemingly related images.

Israhel van Meckenem. “The Unicorn” from a small deck of cards. 15th century. The Illustrated Bartsch. Vol. 8, Early German Artists.
Tapestry. “Wild Woman with a Unicorn.” 16th Century, German. Historisches Museum Basel.

Note the similarities between the two images. Long, abundant hair unrestrained by veils or braids. No clothing except for more hair. Breasts out and proud. The women and their unicorns are positioned identically, facing left, with the woman sitting on a rock and the unicorn’s right leg raised  to the woman’s knee. (Though I initially thought the woodcut showed the woman holding a human hand…cannibalism was too much to hope for.)  While the woodcut seems to place woman and unicorn in a rather craggy and inhospitable location, the tapestry has them in a lush garden full of flowers, even with a fountain.

I like the idea that there are wild women who exist beyond the conventions of the mandated (and man-led) unicorn hunt. I like it that they have hair all over their bodies

In these images there are no hunters, no sign of imminent danger or betrayal or death.

Just some ladies chilling with their unicorn pals…

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