Details from Symbolarum et Emblematum ex Aquatilibus et Reptilibus Desumptorum. Centuria Quarta. (1604), 1590–1605. Written by Joachim Camerarius the Younger (1534–1598). Artist: Johann Siebmacher (German, died 1611). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of S. P. Avery, transferred from the Library, 1921 (21.36.42)
"Well, now that we have seen each other," said the Unicorn, "if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you. Is that a bargain?"
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
For more than two millennia men, women, and children have sustained an irrepressible belief in an elusive one-horned creature, possessed of magical powers. Spiraling horns like the one seen nearby seemed to offer tangible evidence of its existence. Stories embellished over the centuries and across the globe provided salient details about the unicorn's nature and habitat; the works of art seen here reflect these beliefs and bring this elegant creature to life.
Hebrew scripture repeatedly refers to a powerful, singled-horned animal called the re'em. It came to be a symbol of strength and piety in Jewish artistic culture. Classical authors like Ctesias (a Greek physician and historian of the fourth century B.C.), Aristotle, and Pliny all mention a one-horned beast, while the account of Julius Caesar's campaigns against the Gauls proclaims that unicorns live in the deep forest. The Physiologus (meaning "the scientist"), penned in Greek but translated into Latin in the fifth century, observes that the unicorn has the beard and cloven hooves of a goat, and could only be tamed by a maiden. This text echoed across the centuries, from Europe to India.
Christian authors, from Basil, bishop of Caesarea, in the fourth century, to Timothy of Gaza in the sixth, to Isidore of Seville in the seventh, speak of the unicorn. The Christian bestiary, relying on the Physiologus but drawing on Isidore and others, sees the unicorn as a symbol of Christ. Among the many curative properties ascribed to the unicorn are those put forth by the twelfth-century nun and mystic Hildegard of Bingen, who claims that unicorn liver mixed with egg yolk heals leprosy, and that shoes made of unicorn leather promote healthy feet.
As early as the thirteenth century, the unicorn became an emblem of worldly love and a common motif in works of art celebrating marriage. For example, when Catherine de Medici married the son of Francis I, king of France, in 1533, the bride entered Paris in a chariot drawn by two unicorns fabricated for the occasion.
Travel accounts and natural histories attest to intense scientific interest in the unicorn, and the animal's habitat was a particularly vexing question. Pilgrims swore to have seen them near Mount Sinai and reproduced the beast's image in their published journal. Jibra'il ibn Bakhtishu, author of a ninth-century Arabic bestiary, notes that unicorns were said to be common in Nubia and Abyssinia, while the Persian Shahnama indicates that Alexander the Great killed the one-horned creature in Habash (Ethiopia). The sixteenth-century naturalist Conrad Gesner cites the authority of a traveler who saw two unicorns near Mecca, but contemporary engravings of the Four Continents leave no doubt: they are typically American!