In some versions of the Bible, the beginning of Psalm 22:21 reads, “Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.” “Unicorns,” in these versions, had been translated from “re’em,” a Hebrew word mentioned eight times throughout the Old Testament, which is variously translated as unicorns and “wild ox.” Ctesias, the fifth-century B.C.E. Greek physician, wrote frequently of unicorns. So too did Pliny the Elder in the first-century C.E. Even through the 16th century, explorers were claiming they’d made unicorn sightings (they were mostly seeing rhinoceroses).
The myth of the unicorn also dovetailed usefully with religious symbolism. Only virginal girls were said to be able to catch them. Images from the Medieval age have the Mother and Child seated next to a unicorn, as if the unicorn itself were a Christ-like figure, revered for its goodness and majesty.
And yet, the unicorn’s exact symbolism is ambiguous. It is innocent, but it is also aggressive, even sometimes evil; associated with women but bearing an unmistakeable phallic symbol. The unicorn thus creates complex questions around womanhood — at once innocent and sexualized, a healer from poisons that was also known to kill saints.
On until February 25 next year, “Magical Unicorns” at the Museum of the Middle Ages-Cluny Museum in Paris uses both Medieval and contemporary etchings, lithographs, tapestries, paintings, sculptures, and texts to explore the myth of unicorns throughout the past half-millennium, exploring both their shifting mythos and societal importance.
Curated by Beatrice de Chancel-Bardelot, the general curator of the museum, the exhibition is anchored by the museum’s most famous permanent piece, “The Lady and the Unicorn,” a six-part series of tapestries from the 16th-century. With the museum having been under renovation since 2011, this exhibition marks the museum’s partial reopening and draws new attention to the tapestry series.
The works are housed in a circular room, each tapestry depicting a noble woman with a unicorn and a monkey while depicting one of the five senses — taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch. For instance, in the one that represents touch, the woman touches the unicorn’s horn and her pendant. In the one that represents smell, she is making a wreath out of flowers while the monkey smells a stolen flower nearby. In the last and most enigmatic tapestry, which has the words “a mon seul desir” (translated variously as “to my only desire,” “according to my desire alone,” or “by my will alone”) written on a tent, the woman places her pendant into a chest while smiling. A common interpretation is that she is renouncing the passions of her senses, as depicted in the other tapestries, and is thus asserting her free will.
Just as in Psalm 22:21, where the lion threatens to kill and the unicorn acts as a savior, the tapestries characterize the fundamentals of the human experience — all of the senses, humanity’s ultimate free will, and the final pull between evil (the lion) and goodness (the unicorn).
Texts by George Sand, the French novelist, from 1847, and Rainer Maria Rilke, the German poet, from 1910, describe the tapestry and the myth of the unicorn. A costume made by Jean Cocteau for his 1959 Paris ballet evokes the Surrealist implications that the unicorn came to have in the 20th century. A contemporary sculpture made of plaster, shells, and “sea flower plants,” by Sophie Lecomte imagines what unicorn droppings might look like. A lithograph by Le Corbusier and a painting by Gustave Moreau respectively investigate the shape and the beauty of the unicorn. A poster of a nude woman trying to milk a unicorn by Tomi Ungerer is bizarre and funny. (The works come from the National Library of France, the Museum of Hunting and Nature, and the National Foundation for Contemporary Art — all in Greater Paris.)
But in nearly all of the works, the unicorns create a feeling of nostalgia, of a world in which belief and possibility seemed infinite. In Claude Rutault’s 2018 series of tapestries playing off of “The Lady and the Unicorn,” the figures are all so blurred as to appear abstracted. In Miguel Branco’s 2005 Minimalist sculpture, he attempts to wrest back the unicorn from a myth to consume toward a myth that might be believed in. The unicorn is the ultimate vessel of symbolism. Good or evil; realistic or surrealistic; serious or funny; hyper-depicted or abstracted; innocent or manipulative. There are few, if any, myths that move so fluidly — that capture the meaning of their time, shifting through the millennia as humanity moves forward and back.
“The Magical Unicorns” is on view at the Musee de Cluny – National Museum of the Middle Age in Paris through Feburary 25. More information: http://www.musee-moyenage.fr/