Unicorn Natural History

Detail from "The Unicorn Defends Itself" (1495-1505), a large tapestry in the main gallery.

Detail from The Unicorn Defends Itself (1495-1505), a large tapestry in the main gallery.

Who says unicorns aren’t real? Mr. Rockefeller’s tapestry unicorns have been the celebrity draw for the last 75 years uptown at The Cloisters, and are the cavorting centerpieces of the show, Search for the Unicorn. But it took some brave curators to finally display all the unicorn-themed stuff in the Met’s collection and truly reveal the place this beloved icon has held in science, medicine, and art for the last 2,000 years.

The small micro-show in the Romanesque gallery just inside the entrance presents ivory coffers, playing cards, etchings, a carved-bone parade saddle, and coats of arms featuring unicorns in all manner of activity.

But the surprises are loans from NYPL and the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda showing the unicorn’s inclusion in scientific texts, which attest to sightings and miracle cures from the impressive cloven-hoofed trotter.

Pome’s 1694 identification of species in General History of Drugs. Courtesy: US National Library of Medicine, Bethesda.

Pome’s 1694 identification of species in General History of Drugs. Courtesy: US National Library of Medicine, Bethesda.

Conrad Gesner’s Histories of the Animals (1551), the most popular natural history book during the Renaissance, included the unicorn among its 1,200 woodcut images of the world’s quadrupeds. Gesner, who also published images of fossils for the first time here, was a stickler for documentation, and asserts that unicorns had been seen in Mecca by a reliable source. He wrote several pages about how to discern real from fake unicorn horns and told how it should be used to purify water, counteract poisons, and treat epilepsy.

General History of Drugs, which achieved global circulation after it was published in 1694, was written by Pierre Pome, the pharmacist to Louis XIV known for his expertise in medicines and treatments from exotic cultures. Pome gave unicorns their own chapter and described five species living in the Arabian desert and in proximity to the Red Sea. In Chapter 33, he correctly proclaimed “unicorn horn” to be narwhal tusk.

Narwahl tooth (a.k.a. unicorn horn). Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Narwahl tooth (a.k.a. unicorn horn). Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The narwhal’s gracefully shaped, unicorn-looking incisor tooth is given a place in the show, too. One from a private collector is in the Romanesque gallery alongside one of the tapestries, The Unicorn in Captivity (the one in the fenced-in pasture); the second stands behind glass opposite the rest of the tapestries in their usual gallery.

Fancied by rich and powerful in years gone by, Charlemagne, Suleyman the Magnificent, Charles VI of France, and Lorenzo de Medici all owned this Arctic collectible.

We couldn’t take photos inside the show, but don’t worry. The Met’s done a fantastic job documenting everything online, so take time to peruse all the items in the show. Then click on our Flickr site to see the famous Unicorn gallery and glimpse the Cloisters on a perfect summer day.

Do you have 13 minutes? If so, you’ll enjoy the hilarious introduction to the show by curator Barbara Drake Boehm and her speculation on why it took the Cloisters 75 years to mount a show on unicorns. The natural history of unicorns starts around 3:40, and she’ll take you through all the key library materials. Watch to the end to find out where the unicorn was last sighted in the 21st century. It wasn’t Toys ‘R’ Us.

2 thoughts on “Unicorn Natural History

  1. When my husband and I were visiting Sterling Castle in Scotland several years back, we got the chance to see several weavers creating a replica of one of the Unicorn Tapestries for Sterling’s Great Hall (which were commissioned in the 1400s, and were based closely off the set at the Met.) I think it’s so amazing how weavers were able to create such beautiful works of art! And it’s even more amazing how long the customers were willing to wait for them to be finished! I think the set of 4 at Sterling Castle were started in 2001, and should be finished this year! Too long of a wait in my opinion, but then again, I am a product of 20-21st century materialism where everything can be had almost immediately! Thanks for such a great post!
    Ashley from Blue Ridge Vintage

    • Thanks, Ashley. I drove right by Sterling Castle a few years ago and didn’t stop! I’m glad you did, though. I appreciate knowing about the duplicate tapestry project back in Scotland.

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