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.