Hunt of the Unicorn
Property of the Rochefoucauld family until the purchase in 1922 by John D. Rockefeller Jr., no one knows were the tapestries were made, maybe in Bruxelles.
They had escaped from the French Revolution since they didn’t have any simbol of the monarchy, so they were taken and used by the farmers, after they took them during the pillage of Verteuil’s Castle, as blankets for their agricultural products. The Rochefoucauld family managed to find them and buy them back only in the 19th century. The fact that they remained in excellent conditions, except one, demonstrates the outstanding quality of the tapestries.
Many studies were conducted on the letters “A” and “E” that repeats in every tapestry, and they could indicate the initials of the spouses, since they were created for their wedding, but they could have a symbolic meaning since the “E” appears reversed most of the time.
It is unclear in which sequence the seven tapestries should be read, and of one of them only two fragments remain. The most recent hypothesis is that it is not possible a coherent reading. Despite they were made for the same client, they could be part of two different cycles, of which the first is made of two scenes and represents the hunt of the unicorn as an allegory for love. The second cycle, made of four scenes, representes the same hunt of the unicorn as an allegory for the passion of Jesus Christ, and is preceded by the tapestry with only two fragments remaining, which can represent an allegory of the incarnation. It is, however, impossible consider both cycles as separated: a unifying moment derives by the fact that all of the unicorn’s theme and its meanings has been detailed by Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a german Benedictine nun.
There is no doubt that Hildegard believed that unicorns really existed, and that the powder extracted by their horns had medical applications, but documents found during the Renaissance showed that they were probably rhinos. In addition, the way in which the Middle Age described the unicorn’s horn leads to the conclusion that she knew about the arctic cetacean called narwhal, whose “horn” is actually a tooth, that had twisted movements typical of the medieval representation of the unicorns.
The “unicorn horns” used for medical purposes come from rhinos or narwhals, in most cases. Hildegard could do nothing but to descend the imaginary therapeutic virtues of the horn of the unicorn with direct and mysterious bond with Jesus Christ.
In one of her visions, the Saint presents to us a Universal Judgment where a Man rotates with the four region of Earth while a unicorn stands close to his left thigh and is “licking his knees”. Hildegard clearly says that the man that rotates with the four regions of the world indicates God who, at the end of the world, showing his might with the celestial virtues, will strike the edges of Earth. Therefore the unicorn is Jesus Christ, who “licking the knees of the Man, receiving from God the power to judge, proclaimes that the whole world must be purged with fire and must be renewed in another way, and even the wickedness of men must be subjected to his judgment, and which is saint in the good works of men must be brought to perfection”.
However, it was not Hildegard to invent the reading of the unicorn as the symbol of Jesus Christ, which dates back to at least Saint Basil the Great, Father of the Church, but it’s her ability, since she’s a scholar of medicine, to make it so popular.
First Tapestry: The three characters on the left are noble hunters, on the right side there are three servants. Two guide the hunters while the third, up high, call the others and signals that the unicorn has been found.
Second Tapestry: The hunters have found the unicorn. At the center of the composition there is a fountain with mouths in the shape of lion heads, where different animals are about to drink from. The unicorn lets his horn to be soaked in water. According to Hildegard, by dipping the unicorn’s horn in a poisonous liquid, that will become harmless.
Third Tapestry: Other hunting scenes. Despite the fact that the hunted animals are bathing themselves to leave no tracks, the expedient doesn’t work since the greyhounds are too well trained so they don’t lose track of the animal, and the expert hunter will have his servants close all of the escape routes for the prey. Here, though, there is something different compared to the classic hunting scenes with the greyhounds. There is the impression that the unicorn is fully aware of the presence of the hunters and doesn’t try to hide, but simply goes face to face against his fate. The letters “F” and “R” can be seen and could refer to François de la Rochefoucauld, owner of the tapestry, and they were added in a different time.
Fourth Tapestry: The tragedy of the unicorn, that despite being near its capture and kill, looks like it’s resisting. In the scene there is a character teorically extraordinary, the hunter on the left that sounds the horn and from which spear hangs a band with an inscription that recites: “Ave Regina C”, which means “Hail, Queen of the Sky”. There is no doubt that this character is the archangel Gabriel.
Fifth Tapestry: In the religious interpretation of the tapestries, the archangel Gabriel has two dogs, but two others are present in the second fragment. These four greyhounds are the Truth, the Justice, the Peace and the Mercy, the “Four Daughters of God”.
Sixth Tapestry: The last, tragic tapestry is the only one where the unicorn is depicted two times: it shows its killing and its transportation to the castle.
Seventh Tapestry: The most famous of them all. The unicorn is wounded and is inside the fence, tied to a pomegranate tree.
The Seven Tapestries are kept at the Cloisters of New York.