The Unicorno: Still Searching

Updated: Jan 9, 2021



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Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino), Lady with a Unicorn, 1505. Oil on canvas on wooden panel. 67 x 56 cm (26.37 x 22 in). Room IX Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy.


This is an image that is heavily debated among the artistic community as it has been noted that additions and changes were made to the piece. The patron of this image is unknown, however it was most likely commissioned for a wedding. The young maiden is seen in traditional courtly attire and the baby unicorn represents her chastity.


Moretto da Brescia, Saint Justina with the Unicorn, ca. 1530-1534. Oil on wood panel. 200 x 139 cm (78.7 x 54.7 in). Unknown. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.


Moretto signifies Saint Justina’s virginity with the presence of the unicorn. As the patron saint of Padua, she was committed to her religious vows from a very young age and vowed perpetual virginity. She is adored by the donor of this piece who remains unknown. She is carrying a palm branch representing peace and purity.


Piero della Francesca, Reverse of the Portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, ca. 1467 – 1472. Tempera on wood diptych. 47 x 33 cm (18.5 x 12.9 in). Urbino, Italy. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.


The more recognizable side of this diptych, portrays the couple after death. This side shows their respected chariots with personifications of virtues. The Duchess of Urbino is carried by a carriage drawn by two unicorns, representing her pious nature and chastity.


Francesco Pesellino, Triumphs of Love, Chastity, and Death, ca. 1450. Tempera and gold on wood panel. 45 x 157 cm (17.7 x 61.8 in). Florence, Italy. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.


This image is derived from Petrarch’s fourteenth-century poem. Personifications are shown in the panel in the form of a wedding procession. As these processions were the largest part of the public rituals involved in an Italian wedding, it is understandably a very lavish scene. On the right, a pair of unicorns carry Chastity who appears in white carrying a book and an olive branch. Cupid is portrayed on the left and draws back his arrow to compositionally point the viewer to Chastity.


Francesco Di Giorgio Martini, Chastity with the Unicorn, 1463. Illumination on parchment. 390 x 280 cm (153.5 x 110 in). Siena, Italy. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


This image is represented in the Codex De Animalibus. The theme of the unicorn is seen here with a personification of chastity. As with most of the representations of the unicorn, the being is depicted with a maiden. She is taming the creature, but her facial expression is more stern than other representations.


Leonardo da Vinci, A Maiden with a Unicorn, ca. 1470 - 1480. Pen and ink sketch. 95 x 75 cm (37.4 x 29.5 in). Unknown. Unknown.


Even Leonardo da Vinci was mystified by the unicorn and its assumed powers. The unicorn was thought to have healing properties, while its horn could purify water. This sketch portrays the recurring theme of a maiden taming a unicorn, however in this depiction the maiden has a leash around the creature while splashing her feet in the water below.


Pisanello, Portrait medal of Cecilia Gonzaga (obverse); Innocence and a Unicorn in a Moonlit Landscape (reverse), model 1447. Diameter 8.4 cm, Weight 142.55g. Verona, Italy. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


In ancient Roman times, medals were used to commemorate individuals or events. This is a significant piece because this work in bronze was the first to depict a woman. Her name is Cecilia Gonzaga. The front portrays her in a secular court dress, while the back shows a maiden and a unicorn. This image is thought to represent purity and chastity. Further developing this idea, Pisanello depicts the crescent moon, which is a symbol of the virgin goddess, Diana.


Conrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, 1551. Woodcut in printed book. 37.5 x 50.5 cm (14 ¾ x 19 ⅞ in). Zurich, Switzerland. Metropolitan Museum of Art.


The publication Historiae Animalium was thought to be the “inventory of Renaissance zoology.” Although this work is published after most of the representations I have shown before, this text is vital in understanding the extent of the unicorn. In his writings, Gesner discusses how very real the unicorn phenomenon is in the public sphere. Unicorn horns were expensive items kept in private collections, often stolen, and always coveted as works of art.


Abu'l Qasim Firdausi, Iskandar Kills the Habash Monster, ca. 1300–1330. Ink, opaque watercolor, silver, and gold on paper. Painting 5.4 x 12.4 cm (2 ⅛ x 4 ⅞ in), Page 18.4 x 15.6 cm (7 ¼ x 6 ⅛ in). Tus, Iran. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


As the unicorn myth was propelled in Persia through manuscripts and many other forms, this object acts as a historical foundation to this discussion. In this folio, the poet explains the story of hunting the unicorn in Habash. Iskandar (Alexander the Great), led the troops to kill the unicorn. The beast is described to have a long, single dark-colored horn in the center of its head.

Workshop of Apollonio di Giovanni di Tomaso, Birth Tray with the Triumph of Chastity and Naked Boys with Poppy Pods, ca. 1450-1460. Tempera and gold leaf on wooden panel. 58.4 x 59.1 cm. (23 x 23 ¼ in). Florence, Italy. North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina.


In the Renaissance marriages were very important and the wedding procession was the most public of the rituals involved. Birth trays, such as this one, were used to serve the birthing mother a celebratory treat or meal after birth, while she was still in bed. Following the theme of betrothal and marriage, this object was also included in the gift-giving rituals after the children were born. In this depiction, chastity is seen personified on a lavish chariot drawn by unicorns during one of these triumphal wedding processions.


Unknown. Dish with the Arms of Matthias Corvinus and Beatrix of Aragon, ca. 1486–88. Maiolica (tin-glazed earthenware). 10.2 x 47.9 cm (4 x 18 ⅞ in). Pesaro, Italy. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


This bowl was made in Italy for a Hungarian family, which provides more evidence this phenomenon captured the attention of many audiences. This was not a gift to just any family, but the king and queen of Hungary themselves as their coat of arms is proudly displayed on the top. The decorative edges circle the main serene scene of a lady and a unicorn representing chastity.


Special thanks to The Met's Paul and Jill Ruddock Senior Curator for Cloisters

- Dr. Barbara Drake Boehm -

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