Exhibitions/ Art Object

A Maiden Taming a Unicorn, from the Worksop Bestiary

Date:
ca. 1185
Culture:
British (possibly Lincoln or York)
Medium:
Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment
Dimensions:
Overall: 8 1/2 × 6 1/8 in. (21.5 × 15.5 cm)
Classification:
Manuscripts and Illuminations
Credit Line:
The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York
Not on view
"The unicorn . . . is a little beast, not unlike a young goat, and extraordinarily swift. It has a horn in the middle of its brow, and no hunter can catch it. But it can be caught in the following fashion: a girl who is a virgin is led to the place where it dwells, and is left there alone in the forest. As soon as the unicorn sees her, it leaps into her lap and embraces her, and goes to sleep there; then the hunters capture it and display it in the king’s palace."

Though she cradles the unicorn gently in her lap, the maiden gazes at the hunters as they kill the docile beast; the artist thus seems to suggest her complicity.

Illuminated bestiaries are a kind of encyclopedia of beasts, ranging from elephants to fish, vipers to bees. Each animal is described in a way that sees the world in Christian terms. A number of bestiaries survive from medieval England. This example was given by Philip, canon of Lincoln, to the Augustinian priory of Radford in 1187. The text draws on a number of earlier sources, chiefly the Physiologus, a Latin text translated from ancient Greek.