How appropriate that a museum show devoted to the unicorn—a mythical animal whose name has come to mean something so rare and elusive that it might or might not exist—should have failed to materialize. “A Blessing of Unicorns” was slated to bring the fifteenth-century unicorn tapestries from the Musée de Cluny in Paris together with their counterparts in the Cloisters at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as part of a celebration honoring the Met’s one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary. Scheduled for 2020, the show was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. An exhibit of medieval art fell victim to plague, that most medieval of dangers.
The Met’s beautifully illustrated Summer 2020 bulletin, A Blessing of Unicorns: The Paris and Cloisters Tapestries, not only shows us what we missed but may make us rethink our view of unicorns—a subject that, to be honest, hadn’t crossed my mind in years. I used to think about unicorns a lot. In fact I lived with one, you could say: a reproduction of The Unicorn Rests in a Garden hung in my childhood bedroom. I used to stare at the dark fields so thickly covered with impossibly perfect flowers, and at the unicorn in its small round enclosure, so sweet, so melancholy, so lonely—so like the spirit of a preteen girl infused into the body of a white horse with a single corkscrew horn.
It came as something of a shock to see it again, as I looked through the Met minicatalogue and read the lucid informative essay by Barbara Drake Boehm, the senior curator at the Cloisters. And as I read, I saw something in the image I had never seen before. How could I not have noticed that the unicorn’s hide is streaked with blood, that thin rivulets of crimson trickle down the smooth white flesh as it rests so patiently in its circular enclosure? Some scholars have argued that the red streaks are pomegranate juice, the symbol of fertility, but it looks like blood to me, and it seems unlikely that the dog nibbling the unicorn’s back in The Unicorn Surrenders to a Maiden is dribbling red fruit nectar.
What would I have thought, as a child, if I’d known that this delicate, graceful creature was an animal to be hunted, like one of the endangered-species safari trophies so proudly displayed by Don Junior and Eric Trump? And what would I have concluded if I’d been told that this slaughter could not be accomplished without the willing assistance of an agreeable virgin?
Apparently, the unicorn was not only swift but strong, capable of killing an elephant with its horn. The hunters could not get near it on their own. That was why you needed the virgin. The unicorn liked to lay its head in a virgin’s lap, and, while it was distracted, the hunters closed in. The virgin was bait. In case the implications escape us and we miss the ramifications—the preciousness of female purity and the relative contamination of female sexuality—here is Richard de Fournival, the thirteenth-century chancellor of the Cathedral of Amiens and author of The Bestiary of Love:
I was captured also by smell … like the Unicorn which falls asleep in the sweet smell of maidenhood … no one dares to attack or ambush it except a young virgin. For when the unicorn senses a virgin by her smell, it kneels in front of her and gently humbles itself to be of service. Consequently, the clever hunters who know its nature place a maiden in its path, and it falls asleep in her lap. And then, when it is asleep the hunters, who have not the courage to pursue it while awake, come out and kill it.
When I stared at the picture, as a girl, was I being subliminally programmed for a future in which I would have to choose between the unicorn-friend and a sex life? What if we pretended to be virgins? The unicorn would smell it. And if we were virgins, what would be in it for us, delivering the lovely beast to its killers? By high school, my friends and I had begun to see virginity as a burden we were eager to be rid of; we were too innocent to understand how much about girlhood—its energy and spirit—was a pity to lose. And certainly I was too young to consider how the cult of the virgin—the fetishization of virginity—was a bad thing for women, freighted with punishments imposed by men, intended not for the protection of girls but primarily as a guarantee about the product that one was buying, selling, or bartering in marriage.
Much has been made of the unicorn as a symbol of Christ, a reading of these images that a medievalist friend supports; because of predestination, she says, the convoluted illogic of the Virgin being complicit in the murder of her son is beside the point. The unicorn’s wounds are the wounds of Jesus. Boehm is less convinced, and argues that the symbolic religious interpretation has been taken to extremes. But whether or not the unicorn represents (or reminds us of) Jesus, whether its blood is the blood of Christ, there’s no doubt that the hunters in the Cluny tapestries—coarse, rapacious, brutish, nasty—are dead ringers for the louts mocking Christ in the paintings of Bosch and Grunewald.
Though I could not help but mourn for my innocence lost, my preteen love of unicorns deflowered, I was grateful for the delightful unicorn factoids Boehm provides: The twelfth-century mystic and composer Hildegard von Bingen believed that you could cure leprosy by mashing a unicorn liver with an egg yolk. Cesare Borgia dressed up as unicorn for his wedding in 1498. Julius Caesar wrote that the unicorns lived in the forests of Germany, while later German pilgrims spotted a unicorn in the vicinity of Mount Sinai.
Woven around 1500, each of the Cluny tapestries represents one of the senses (taste, smell, sight, et cetera) and depicts a relatively static scene (unicorn, lady) against a red background heavily stippled with small animals, tress, banners, and flowers. It’s astonishing that these enormous, highly detailed works of representative art were woven, though my amazement was somewhat muted by not seeing them in person.
The tapestries at the Cloisters are not only later (dating from around the beginning of the sixteenth century) but far more dynamic, realistic—and bloodier.
The name of the series, “The Unicorn Hunt,” is an instant tip off : this is not My Little Pony. And yet, in the first of the series, The Hunters Enter the Woods, things look amiable enough. The dogs don’t seem all that bloodthirsty; two of them look backward instead of ahead. The men wear funny hats, some with large plumes, and maybe those spears are just accessories that thirteenth-century men took on walks in the woods. Walking sticks with points.
A crowd has gathered in The Unicorn Purifies Water, and it’s all very Peaceable Kingdom; the unicorn is surrounded by a pack of real and mythical beasts, unsettling but unthreatening. The Unicorn Surrenders to the Maiden features only two humans—the (presumable) virgin and a hunter spying from the trees and blowing his horn, signaling the others. But now the dogs are worked up. One of them is either nuzzling or biting the unicorn, which remains calm, though now two streams of blood trickle down its back. The blood is as pretty—as aesthetic—as everything else.
It’s not until The Unicorn Defends Himself that the spears are raised. The dogs have gotten meaner, perhaps because one of them has been gored by the unicorn, whose blood has begun to flow.
The Hunters Return to the Castle is one of those medieval/Renaissance images that function like a film, showing us scenes that we can follow, sequentially, from one side of the image to the other. On the upper left, the unicorn is in agony, deeply pierced by three spears and beset by the dogs. And in the lower foreground, the dead unicorn—looking more like a slaughtered goat than a magical creature, its deflated carcass slung over the back of a handsome brown horse—has been brought for the approval of the regal lord and lady and their courtiers.
When I was in high school, often, in nice weather, my friends and I took the Fifth Avenue bus to the end of the line, Fort Tryon Park. We’d spend whole afternoons at the Cloisters. It was our European vacation, our cheaply available time travel. I don’t know how much time I spent in front of the unicorn tapestries, but I do know that, through all those hours, it never once occurred to me that I was looking at carnage.
Perhaps the cruelty and bloody-mindedness of this year has brought carnage into sharper focus. It’s unnerving, even embarrassing, but I always (or almost always) like having my eyes opened to something I didn’t notice, even though it was right in front of me all along. It wasn’t as if it had never occurred to me, how severely our society has been poisoned and deformed by racism and income inequality. But the events of this summer, the Black Lives Matter protests and the horrifying statistics that reveal how much more severely the poor and people of color have suffered from the pandemic have made it impossible not to see the blood. I used to say that our democracy was a fragile institution, that what happened to turn other democracies into dictatorships could easily happen here. But I don’t think I really believed it until recently.
However startling or painful the truth may be, seeing what we failed to notice feels like a continuing education, a lesson, even a gift. Like so many stories I thought I knew, like so many of the stories we tell ourselves and are told, the story of the unicorn is not what I’d thought. The beauty of these tapestries is thrilling, even in reproduction, but they do raise the question of how easily we can overlook the obvious, if we don’t look closely.
Francine Prose is the author of nineteen novels, eight works of nonfiction, three short-story collections, and one children’s book. Her most recent novel is Mister Monkey.