The Religious Background of Unicorn Tapestries

The Religious Background of Unicorn Tapestries

By Connie Wallace Platinum Quality Author

The unicorn has been a mythical symbol since ancient times. Some of the earliest depictions of the unicorn are from ancient China and featured a creature resembling a large horse with a single horn protruding from its forehead. The writings and drawings of many ancient cultures throughout Asia and Europe included unicorns and eventually they evolved into religious symbols.

By the middle ages, the unicorn was considered both a religious and secular symbol by most of Christian Europe. The unicorn represented chastity, holiness, and purity, and was even used as a symbol for Christ. Because of the unicorn’s important symbolism, it was often featured in tapestries and other art of the period. There are even references to unicorns in the bible, although some historians question their inclusion in the Bible because of translations issues. References to unicorns can be seen in Deuteronomy 33:17, Psalm 22:21, 29:6 and 92:10; Numbers 23:22 and 24:8; and Isaiah 34:7. These passages do not infer that the references to unicorns are fictitious or that unicorns are not in fact real animals.

There are many examples of medieval art and tapestries that feature unicorns and once they were accepted as a religious symbol they became very popular subjects. Unicorns represented purity and the myth perpetuated by their holy meaning was that only a virgin could tame a unicorn. Tapestries were common among the aristocracy in the Middle ages and were used as decoration as well as insulation for windows and openings. The most common tapestry designs were biblical allegories including unicorns. One of the most famous sets of tapestries are the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, Created in France in the late 1400’s.

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are perhaps the most famous examples of unicorns in art in the entire world. They were not discovered until late in the 1800’s by Proper Merimee in a castle in Boussac France. They were damaged but were later restored and then put on display in the Cluny Museum in France in a room specially designed to house them. The novelist Georges Sands was responsible for making them so popular and included them in her writings.

It is not known who designed and wove the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, but historians do know who they were created for. The coat of arms on the tapestries belongs to the Le Viste family and the tapestries were probably created for this family in the late 1400’s. Like other tapestries and art depicting unicorns, the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are said to represent the human senses with the subject of the tapestries a virginal maiden and a unicorn. Five of the six tapestries represent the five senses, hearing, tough, taste, feeling, and sight. The sixth tapestry is one that carries some debate as some say it represent love, other think it stands for the “6th sense” while other think it represents understanding or empathy. Unicorns have long been a part of art and folk lore, and are still symbols of holiness and purity today.

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