Are unicorns real?
Dr. Barbara Drake Boehm, Paul and Jill Ruddock Senior Curator of Cloisters, seems to think they are, “everywhere and nowhere.”
In the summer of 2016, I was in New York City for a philanthropy conference. There was a flurry of excitement among the artistic community as it was the weekend of the reopening of the Whitney. At the same time, up the street from Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dr. Boehm was settling into her new position at the Cloisters Museum. She was probably busy finishing up the last touches in the gallery for her Jerusalem exhibition.
I had the opportunity to speak with this incredible woman in the fall of 2020. Her knowledge of language is extensive to say the least. She first began studying French when she was in the 8th grade. In the beginning of high school, she started German and laughed as she explained she finished the rest in graduate school. In graduate school, she found she could read Italian quite easily because her French was basically fluent. She then learned “church Latin” and “some Czech” after working on an exhibition in Prague. In the summer of 2016 she also did an intensive workshop in Arabic, prior to her Jerusalem exhibition. The title of this exhibition, “Every People Under Heaven,” and explored the role of the city of Jerusalem as it shaped art in 1000-1400 AD.
She began her studies in Art History at Wellesley College. Graduating with distinction, she received her Ph.D. and M.A. from the Institute of Fine Arts in New York City. Working her way up from a Curatorial Assistant position in 1983 in the Department of Medieval Art, she was promoted to Curator in 1988. Due to her extensive knowledge of the Middle Ages and Islamic Art, she was promoted yet again to The Cloisters in 2008. She has maintained her current position as Senior Curator since 2015. She has shared her research in lectures and courses at the Courtauld Institute, Musée du Louvre, Edinburgh University, J. Paul Getty Museum, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait Museum, among many others.
The exhibition that caught my attention while reviewing her work before our meeting was about (yes)
In 2013, she held an exhibition at the MET to reintroduce the famous unicorn tapestries with the world of New York City and beyond. This exhibition was called, “Search for the Unicorn: Mecca to Manhattan,” and was held in honor of the Cloisters 75th anniversary.
These tapestries were woven in the Netherlands in the fifteenth century. They have a twin set, which are (though not identical) held at the Musée de Cluny in Paris. She explained that these tapestries are rare in their depiction of the unicorn, as this legend continues to mystify scholars today through less elaborate artworks. Her focus for this exhibition was to showcase these tapestries in opposition to previous religious interpretations, as volunteer lecturers continued to complicate and propel an incorrect narrative. Instead she argues that the unicorn theme is depicted more readily in a secular context surrounding ideals of betrothal, chastity, and purity. The MET tapestries portray the hunt of the unicorn, while the Paris set describes the senses (even a special sixth sense).
There is an early tradition of complicated Medieval metaphors in which they compare the unicorn to Christ and the maiden to the Virgin Mary. This becomes a very complicated and difficult metaphor to adhere to when analyzing the tapestries today. Dr. Boehm said, “I do not believe this metaphor works at all anymore.” She laughed as she explained, “this [metaphor] of course makes no sense because if the maiden is the Virgin Mary why would she help them kill Jesus? The twelve Apostles are the twelve hunters in on the scheme? No no, this really is not what this tapestry ensemble portrays.”
She just wrote a bulletin for the Met, “A Blessing of Unicorns.”
You can read it electronically (that’s what I did) or purchase it through the MET website (which I also did) here:
In it, she discusses the unicorn as involved in the marital setting. One story that stood out to me both in the bulletin and through her laugh, was about a marriage between a “terrible notorious guy,” named Borgia who married a French princess. At their wedding, he (the groom) dressed up like a unicorn and forced all other guests to dress as other animals. This is just one example. This theme was a major part of art history as seen dating way (and I mean hundreds of years way) before the Renaissance.
Dr. Boehm is now widely published around the globe and well known as an expert in her field. She continues to be one of (if not the only) few scholars to take on the so-called frivolous unicorn theme.
Insider knowledge alert!
→ The MET Cloisters were supposed to show the Paris tapestries this Fall on September 17th, as renovations at the Musée de Cluny prohibited viewers from accessing them. This was to be a very rare event as these fifteenth-century objects have never been shown in tandem with the Cloister tapestries are usually prohibited from travel. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 the tapestries were locked in place in France. Boehm said, “it was heartbreaking we had to cancel it.”
Watch her 20 minute lecture about where to find unicorns here: https://www.metmuseum.org/metmedia/video/collections/med/the-cloisters-2013-part-four
(Yes, pin the horn on the unicorn was a thing).