Many a time did the older hands mutter something about virginity, maidenhead; and this, with a melancholy shake of the head conveyed all that was to be conveyed
- Patrick O'Brian, The Hundred Days
As every medievalist knows, back in the Middle Ages unicorns were fierce beasts. They were too swift for hunters and could easily outrun any man. For this reason, there was only one way of catching them: A maiden must go to the unicorn's territory and sit down and wait for it to discover her. When the unicorn sees the maiden, he will immedately come to her, embrace her and place his head in her lap.
This description of its behaviour appears to be universally agreed upon in all medieval bestiaries, and there have survived numerous depictions of this scene. Most of these depictions are like the ones shown towards the end of this blogpost: scenes in which the smiling unicorn in the maiden's lap is given the death-blow by a hunter or a knight. The imagery of these renditions and the very symbolism of the unicorn legend has a distinct erotic quality, although this quality is not acknowledged in medieval expositions of the unicorn - at least not to my knowledge.
Instead, the writer of a bestiary was concerned with another symbolic dimension, and this one was made overtly clear in all cases: The unicorn was a symbol of Jesus Christ. Or, as it is more aptly stated in one bestiary: "Our Lord Jesus Christ is the spiritual unicorn" (quoted from Richard Barber's incomplete translation of MS. Bodley 764). This same bestiary,also connects the unicorn imagery to biblical typology by a refrence to Song of Songs 2:9, where it says, in the Vulgate, "Similis est dilectus meus capreae, hinnuloque cervorum", which in the New International Version of the Bible is translated "My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag". As you will notice, neither the Vulgate nor the modern rendition mentions unicorns, so the medieval authors looking for a typological connection between Christ and the unicorn, interpreted the gazelle of the Song of Songs as a reference to Christ the spiritual unicorn. The Christic symbolism of the unicorn was well-known in the Middle Ages and various renditions of this symbolism can be found in medieval art.
A few weeks ago, a good friend and I were at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen, which is a wonderful museum housing a number of interesting collections - we spent about four hours there, but only had time to get through the medieval and the pre-historic sections. One of the first items exhibited in the medieval section was the altar piece seen below, and I was very surprised by its motif, or rather its conflation of two typical and usually distinct medieval motifs.
In this altar front, the Annunciation (Luke 1) where Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear the world's saviour, is rendered as a typical depiction of a unicorn hunt. The scene itself is ubiquitously identified by the text on the top of frame, where it is written a well-known passage from the passage in Luke: Ave gratia plena Dominus tecum (Hail [Mary] full of gifts, God be with you. (I have here translated "gratia" not as "grace" but as "gifts" since that is closer to the meaning of "gratia".)
The altar front is item number D1257 of the Danish National Museum, and it is assumed to be a Dutch-inspired work from Northern Germany. c.1525. It belonged to Gyrstinge Church in Sjælland, Denmark. The frame is painted to resemble textile.
As an Annunciation scene, this one seemed to me highly unusual since it applies such a traditionally violent motif as an allegorical vehicle. Gabriel is the hunter whose dogs - identified by the curators as Mercy and Peace - chase the unicorn into the lap, or rather in this case into the womb of the maiden. This is a curious reversal of the traditional unicorn legend: Here it is not the maiden who lures the wily unicorn to its lap so that the hunter can kill it. Instead, it is the hunter - horn in hand and dogs in a leash - who drives the unicorn towards the maiden, while God beholds everything from above in his papal tiara. Because of the reversal of the traditional scene, there is no death but rather a conception, there is no violence and no death, and the erotic imagery common to the unicorn motif has disappeared.
Mary receives the unicorn
Gabriel with his dogs
[Edit:] Since first writing this blogpost, I was alerted to the fact that this conflation is "a standard iconography of Gabriel on the mystical hunt", to quote Henrike Lähnemann. She very helpfully directed me to a lectern cloth whose rendition of this scene is very similar to the one depicted above, which comes from Ebstorf Abbey in Northern Germany. The cloth can be seen here.
As a contrast to this highly religious rendition of the motif, here are two scenes from English bestiaries, both from the thirteenth century. As can be seen, there are many similarities between the these illuminations and the altar fronts, but also some differences - which makes sense given the different message of the altar front.
BL MS Harley 3244, f.38, Peraldus, theological miscellany, 2nd or 3rd quarter of 13th century
Courtesy of British Library
BL MS Royal 12 F XIII, f.10v, bestiary, England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century
Courtesy of British Library
Richard Barber (editor and translator), Bestiary, The Folio Society, 1992 (this is an abridgement)
T. H. White (editor and translator), The Book of Beasts, Dover Publications, 1984
For similar blogposts, see:
A poem based on BL MS Royal 12 F XIII
An artist's conflation of Saint George and Saint Ladislas
On the lynx in the medieval imagination
On Saint Edmund as a hedgehog
On the Annunciation and the Passion falling on the same day
Poems on the Annunciation