The Story of the Unicorn

The Unicorn Tapestries, woven around 1500, celebrate a world of wonders with the unicorn at its very center. The mythical animal inhabits a world resembling our own, suggesting he’s as real as we believe.

Though these tapestries depict a hunt for this legendary creature, they’re also a hymn of praise for Nature and all its abundance.

A composite image of three details of plants from the unicorn tapestries. In the first images flowers mingle with shrubs bearing berry fruit. In the second image, white lilies and small red flowers blossom at the feet of a unicorn both inside and outside a fenced-in area. In the third image, trees filed with ripe pomegranates mingle against a backdrop of blossoming flowers.

The unicorn’s world includes over 100 recognizable plants and trees, all flowering at the same time. There are lilies and forget-me-nots, pomegranates and orange trees.

A composite image of three details of animals from the Unicorn Tapestries. In the first image, an exotic bird drinks leans over to drink water from a fountain. In the second image, a rabbit sits with alert ears among a cluster of leafy and floral plantings. And in the third image, two collared dogs sniff and survey low to the ground.

There are also animals, wild and tame, domestic and exotic: pheasants, rabbits, a lion and his lioness. A tiny frog hides in the greenery. Ducks swim in clear, running streams while dogs pass by, intent on the hunt.

In this tapestry, the unicorn sits peacefully in a cage beneath a single tree. A collar is around his neck. Details of the tapestry highlight the exquisite craftspersonship that goes into rendering the hundreds of flowers around the unicorn. The initials “A.D.” are woven into the corners of this tapestry, as well as all of the others.

Although unicorns were said to be very difficult to capture, this one appears content—even proud—to wear a collar and be tethered to a fence. Resting on a carpet of flowers beneath a ripe pomegranate tree, he doesn’t seem to notice the juice that’s fallen, staining his white coat.

The tapestries were likely created to celebrate a marriage. This panel may have been hung in a bed chamber, with the leashed unicorn symbolizing the bridegroom tamed by love.

Five hunters enter the woods with their hounds. In the distance, a sixth spots their prey from the top of a tree. Details of the tapestry highlight the hunters’ noble attire—they wear embroidered clothing, plumed hats, tights, and soft shoes.

A group of hunters has entered a flowery wood, but their dandyish attire is a far cry from the practical all-weather gear you might expect. These men recognize that hunting is a privilege to be celebrated, and they’ve dressed for the occasion. A young scout high in a tree signals that the quarry has been sighted. At this point, there’s no hint that it’s a unicorn.

A crowd surrounds the unicorn, which is holding its horn in water that pours from a fountain. A number of other animals, including lions, birds, and a stag have gathered around the water. The hunters marvel at the sight—they point, or turn to each other as if whispering.

The unicorn’s true magic lies in its horn’s ability to detect the presence of poison and purify water. As the elegant beast kneels at the edge of a stream, animals and men gather to witness the extraordinary moment. Awestruck by its wonder, they seem at peace with one another—if only until the spell breaks.

The chase is on. The hunters stab the unicorn with their spears as it flees through the water. Still, even in this violent tapestry the unicorn is depicted as a majestic creature.

The unicorn, acting on instinct, jumps into a stream and attempts to throw the dogs off his scent. The thirsty dogs eagerly lap the water, sending ripples across its surface. All the while they resolutely stalk their prey.

In this tapestry, the unicorn bucks and stabs one of the hounds with its horn, opening a large red wound. More hunters and dogs surround the animal, suggesting the hunt is reaching its climax.

As the unicorn fights for survival, the scene erupts in violence. The horn that once purified water now brutally impales a dog. Woven into this scene is a sense of tenderness as a beloved dog falls victim to the hunt’s frenzy.

This image contains two fragments of a tapestry. On the left, a man sounds a horn from within the forest. To the right, a noble lady stands with her hand raised over the unicorn, which is kept in place by two hunting dogs.

Although a large part of this hanging has been lost, enough remains to tell the tale. The wounded unicorn rests as barely visible, delicate fingers stroke his mane. A lady has brought him to his knees in her rose garden, but her figure in the tapestry is lost—only her maidservant remains intact.

In the final Unicorn Tapestry, the hunting party returns to the castle with the unicorn, their prey. On the left, hunters stab one unicorn, and in the center a second is draped over a horse. Nobles gather around the animal to gawk and point. In the distance, the castle rises over the forest.

A castle stands at the edge of the wood, surrounded by a moat where swans swim serenely. With a calm, dignified air, the lord and lady greet the returning hunters. Their entourage presses forward for a glimpse of the animal. One hunter grasps the magic horn firmly in his hand—it’s the most prized trophy.



All Image Credits


The Met Cloisters Primer

Continue Your Journey

Return to the Primer
A massive stone scalloped arched doorway looks out onto another rounded arch passageway which frames yet another rounded arch cutout in the distance.