Unicorns in medieval art

After visiting Copenhagens art museum the other day, I felt like doing something with a connection to art history and medieval culture. I found this well known medal from 1447 by the amazing italian artist Pisanello, portraying Cecilia Gonzaga. Just for fun I decided to draw the unicorn depicted on the reverse side of the medal.

In short, the story behind this classical motif “Innocence and Unicorn” is that only a virgin could capture the terrible unicorn beast. When he saw her he would lay down and rest his head peacefully in her lap (so they could capture or kill him…) The unicorn was also used as a symbol for Christ. There are also tons of other myths around the unicorn.

Today the unicorn is mostly drawn as a big shiny white (or pink) horse, with heavy romantic vibes. Mostly horrible!

I am much more in love with the little goat like unicorn from the medieval manuscripts and other art from that period. My ink drawing of the unicorn made me wanna look for more medieval images of the unicorn, here are some of them.

Painting by unknown ca 1290–1300 “Capture of a unicorn”.

Unicorn from a medieval Central European map.

Francesco di Giorgio Martini “Chastity with the Unicorn”, painted 1463.

Unknown Flemish weaver, “The Unicorn in Captivity” ca 1495–1505, belonging to the “The Unicorn Tapestries”.

Giorgione 1478–1510 “Allegory of chastity” ca 1500.

“Unicorn Monoceros” by Conrad Gesner, from his encyclopedic work “Historiae Animalium”/”History of the animals”, Zurich 1551–58. It was the first modern zoological work that attempted to describe all the known animals. And one of them was the unicorn…

Lena Svalfors Hedin
Hi! My name is Lena and I love creative and beautiful things in life. Sometimes it inspires me to photograph and write something about it, hopefully you can enjoy it too. I have previously been freelancing as an illustrator, now I have a day job focused on communication, web development and graphic design for print and web.
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