The unicorn at the Annunciation

Mythical creature was popular in Medieval art and prayer books

To most people, unicorns — those white horses with a horn in the middle of their foreheads — are pretty creatures of fantasy. However, in Middle Ages, many people understood the unicorn as representing Christ. Art from that period often used a unicorn and a maiden to represent Christ and his mother at the Annunciation.

We celebrate the Annunciation on March 25, so the feast day offers a good time to look at unicorns and Christ.

Honorius of Autun, a theologian and writer who lived in the early 12th century, famously described the unicorn as a “very fierce white animal with only one horn” that could only be caught by a virgin who attracted the unicorn to her side. “Christ is represented by this animal and his invincible strength by its horn,” Honorius added. “He who lay down in the womb of the Virgin has been caught by the hunters, that is to say, he was found in human shape by those who loved him.”

The hunt

A famous series of 16th century Parisian tapestries, now housed in The New York Metropolitan Museum’s “The Cloisters,” depicts a unicorn. The seven scenes, also called the “Hunt of the Unicorn” have strong ties to the Paschal Mystery, with the unicorn being captured, killed and then shown alive again in the last tapestry.

The unicorn has been associated with Christ since the early church. Around the second century, the Christian author, Tertullian, linked the creature with Christ — because Christ had both a wild (divine) and a tame (human) nature. Justin Martyr, who lived around the same time, wrote that the unicorn’s horn represented the cross.

What became the standard Christian myth about the unicorn in the Middle Ages found its origin in an anonymous Greek text from around the third century known as “Physiologus.” The text was “a bestiary,” a popular form of encyclopedic listings of animals, both real and mythological. In this, the unicorn was called “monoker?s” (Greek for the Latin unicornis, meaning “one horn”). The book describes the unicorn as small — representing its humility — fierce and having one horn to remind us of Christ’s words that “the Father and I are one.”

Despite the popularity of medieval legends, people also believed that the mythical unicorn might actually be a form of a real life antelope or goat.

Some translations of the psalms (for example, 9, 22 and 28) refer to a unicorn. Psalm 22 (which begins “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me”) lists unicorns in verse 21. Here, though, the unicorns are fierce and dangerous as lions, not the meek animal representing Christ. This shows the other side of unicorns in Christian history — as potentially evil creatures. (Catholic Bibles translate verse 21’s “unicorn” as “wild ox.”)

Ancient ox or rhinoceros?

In the Old Testament, translated into the Greek Septuagint about 300 years before Christ, the reference to a horn (“my horn shall be exalted” in Psalm 92) sometimes adds the Greek word monokeros — single horn — to the translation: “My horn shall be exalted like that of a monokeros  (unicorn.”) The original Hebrew word is re’em, more likely referred to a young wild ox known as an aurochs. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that an aurochs was akin to the Assyrian rimu (now extinct). Rimu was translated in various ways over the centuries, including “wild ox,” “rhinoceros” and “unicorn.” Here, again, the unicorn is a triumphant animal, as the Old Testament heroes who believed in God.

Still — even if it could be dangerous or a symbol of triumph over enemies — the mythical lure of the beautiful and wild unicorn tamed by a virgin became the strongest image in the Middle Ages. Unicorns soon adorned churches, religious art and even prayer books.

For example, a Warsaw altarpiece from 1480 (above), now in the collection of the National Museum of Poland, contains a polyptych (containing hinged panels) called “Master of the Annunciation with the Unicorn.” One of its panels shows the Virgin Mary holding a unicorn, with the hunter and his horn nearby. The hunter is the Archangel Gabriel.

Driven to Mary

Likewise, The Morgan Library in New York has an early 16th century “Book of Hours” from the Netherlands. It includes the same theme: the unicorn in Mary’s lap with the archangel as a hunter holding a trumpet. Gabriel here holds the leashes of two hunting dogs, which the library explains represent mercy and peace, who drive the unicorn to Mary.

While we might be accustomed to seeing unicorns on children’s backpacks or in cartoons, it is nice — on the occasion of the Annunciation — to remember that it also has a noble, theological heritage: one that reminds us that God’s ways are mysterious and wondrous. To remember that, all we have to do is read St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, in his late fourth century commentary on the psalms: “Who then is this unicorn, but the only-begotten Son of God?”

 

Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art; The Morgan Library at themorgan.org; jimmyakin.com; catholic.com; catholictradition.org; catholic-saints.info; aras.org; The Holy Hunt; National Museum in Warsaw at mnw.art.pl; christianity/stackexchange.com; taylormarshall.com; rosarychurch.net; biblegateway.com; metmuseum.org; and beliefnet.com