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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.