How to Capture a Unicorn

'The Unicorn Tapestries' at The Met Cloisters
By Lorraine Ferrier, Epoch Times
May 29, 2019 Updated: June 12, 2019

In a meadow of a thousand flowers, a rather serene unicorn can be found resting in a circular, golden pen. The unicorn is gently tethered to a pomegranate tree by a golden chain linked to a richly colored collar. The pomegranate tree is laden with fruit, some of which appears to have burst its juice onto the unicorn in three distinct areas.

But something is awry.

Unicorn
A detail from “The Unicorn in Captivity,” 1495–1505, South Netherlandish. Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts; 144 7/8 inches by 99 inches. Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937, The Met Cloisters. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art )

On closer inspection, while the fruits are pomegranates, the leaves of the tree are not those of the pomegranate tree at all, and the fence containing the unicorn is so low that the unicorn could easily escape. The pomegranate juice that stains the unicorn’s fur could even be blood.

Unicorn in fenced cage
“The Unicorn in Captivity,” 1495–1505, South Netherlandish. Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts; 144 7/8 inches by 99 inches. Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937, The Met Cloisters. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art )

So what’s actually happening here? No one knows for certain what this tapestry represents or who commissioned the opulent piece. Indeed, it is as cryptic as the unicorn it features, but there are symbolic clues in the design.

Scholars suggest it could be part of a series of seven tapestries, made between 1495 and 1505, which are in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection and on display at The Met Cloisters. The actual order of the tapestries is unknown, as there are no records of their early history, other than when they were first mentioned in 1680. Scholars are even unsure whether the series is a whole sequence or several sets.

The Unicorn Hunt

“The Unicorn in Captivity” tapestry seems to be the last of the seven, and the end of a storyboard on how to capture a unicorn, but it could equally be a scene on its own.

Hunters in woods with hounds
“The Hunters Enter the Woods,” 1495–1505, South Netherlandish. Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts; 145 inches by 124 inches. Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937, The Met Cloisters. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art )

The six other tapestries, each delightfully and in some cases graphically, depict the methods one must use in order to snare a unicorn: There’s the tapestry showing the anticipation of the hunt, where “The Hunters Enter the Woods,” as they set off on their adventure. Yet, when “The Unicorn Is Found,” the men crowd around the creature with a look of collective bewilderment, almost as if they now don’t know what to do.

Unicorn found
“The Unicorn Is Found,” 1495–1505, South Netherlandish. Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts; 145 inches by 149 inches. Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937, The Met Cloisters. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art )

Let’s surmise that after “The Unicorn Is Found,” then comes the inevitable tapestry: “The Unicorn Is Attacked.” It’s in this tapestry that the heat of the hunt comes to a climax. It’s all action: There are hounds chasing down the unicorn, hunting horns being heartily blown, and spears converging on the unicorn from every which way. There’s no escape.

Unicorn being attacked
“The Unicorn Is Attacked,” 1495–1505, South Netherlandish. Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts; 145 inches by 168 inches. Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937, The Met Cloisters. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art )

In the next tapestry, “The Unicorn Defends Itself,” it bucks and plunges its horn at one of the hounds.

Unicorn medieval
“The Unicorn Defends Itself,” 1495–1505, South Netherlandish. Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts; 145 inches by 158 inches. Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937, The Met Cloisters. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art )

Of course, as most people know, the only way to truly entrap a unicorn is with the help of a virgin, who can hypnotize or subdue the poor thing and carry out “The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn.”

Virgin Unicorn
“The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn,” 1495–1505, South Netherlandish. Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts; 78 inches by 25 1/2 inches. Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1938, The Met Cloisters. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art )

After this tapestry, the fate of the unicorn seems sealed in the scene woven in “The Unicorn Is Killed and Brought to the Castle.” However, it’s not the end of the story because the last tapestry appears to be “The Unicorn in Captivity.”

Unicorn castle
“The Unicorn Is Killed and Brought to the Castle,” 1495–1505, South Netherlandish. Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts; 145 inches by 153 inches. Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937, The Met Cloisters. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art )

‘The Unicorn in Captivity’

Only a wealthy patron would be able to afford to commission such a luxurious piece.

The design is thought to be French, probably Parisian, but the weavers are thought to be from Brussels, in the Netherlands, who were renowned for their exemplary weaving.

The weaving was done on a large loom using dyed fine wool yarn, and silk with metallic threads. The tapestries’ primary colors come from plants: for example, yellow from weld, red from madder, and blue from woad. The diverse textures and jewel-like colors of the clothes, animal fur, leaves, stalks, and bark all come from mixing these simple colors.

There is no depth of field to the tapestry; plants and flowers lay on a flat, dark background—a style called “millefleur,” which literally means “thousand flowers.” The actual number of different blooms that feature in “The Unicorn in Captivity” is not a thousand but still an impressive 101, and astoundingly, many of the flowers are botanically accurate in their depictions.

From the early 1500s onward, it was more common for millefleur tapestries to show flowers that are more stylized than naturalistic.

Secular and Sacred Symbology

“The Unicorn in Captivity” is blooming with both religious and secular symbols. From a Christian perspective, the unicorn could represent Christ and his purity. “The Unicorn in Captivity” scene could be seen as Christ’s resurrection. In prior scenes, we saw the death of the unicorn, yet here it is alive, as if in a sublime meditative state. The unicorn is penned in a circle, which represents eternity in Christian art, hinting at the fact that faith in something higher and purer: In this case the unicorn, as Christ, is eternal. If another fence post is behind the pomegranate tree, there are 12 in total, and each post looks like a stake that points up to the heavens, perhaps a hint at the 12 apostles.

Unicorn in fenced cage
“The Unicorn in Captivity,” 1495–1505, South Netherlandish. Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts; 144 7/8 inches by 99 inches. Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937, The Met Cloisters. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art )
Unicorn castle
“The Unicorn Is Killed and Brought to the Castle,” 1495–1505, South Netherlandish. Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts; 145 inches by 153 inches. Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937, The Met Cloisters. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art )

In the tapestry “The Unicorn Is Killed and Brought to the Castle,” a horse carries the dead unicorn. The unicorn wears a ring of thorny branches of oak that symbolizes Christ’s crown of thorns, and on its leg is a wound that could equally mirror the marks from Christ’s crucifixion.

Another way to interpret “The Unicorn in Captivity” tapestry is as an allegory of marriage and fertility. Folklore says that unicorns could be captured only by a virgin, and there are many symbols of fertility in the scene. The pomegranate with its lush seeds is one, and flowers that feature in the tapestry, such as wild orchid, bistort, and thistle, were used to aid fertility for both sexes throughout the Middle Ages.

Then we see the letters “A” and “E” bound by a length of rope. The initials could simply be the unknown patron who commissioned the works, or perhaps the rope signifies the knot of marriage between the unknown partners A and E. The scene could therefore be about the purity of marriage.

The low, circular fence that’s easy for the unicorn to jump over could indicate being bound by the eternal moral code of marriage, yet not confined.

All in all, whatever their meaning, “The Unicorn Tapestries” will continue to enthrall.

To find out more about the tapestries, go to MetMuseum.org

RECOMMENDED