Among the most beautiful of all medieval tapestries are those that belong to the "Hunt of the Unicorn" series. Created around the 15th century in France, today they hang in the Cloisters Museum, part of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
The seven tapestries depict typical medieval hunting scenes, patterned after the popular stag hunt. Yet these scenes go much deeper than a mere sporting activity. Hidden within the plant, animal, and human images are spiritual undertones. To the educated eye, one might more properly call them over-tones. In this blog, I’d like to take a very brief look at each of the tapestries and show how the story of Christ is revealed. Due to space concerns, I’ll only touch on a few of the more significant symbolisms in each.
Tapestry 1: The Start of the Hunt
The tale begins with the lord of the hunt and his companions as they set forth on their quest for the unicorn. A scout in a tree (upper right) motions to the hunters. He has sighted the quarry and calls for his companions to follow.
The main spiritual message in this scene is that of man’s state of sin and need for salvation. Immediately underneath the central hunter is a white campion flower, also known as snake flower or death flower. This flower and its position depict the sinful state of man, which has brought death into the world. The hunters gathering to quest for the unicorn show mankind’s search for someone to rescue them from their sinful state.
Also central to this scene is the theme of birth, specifically the birth of a divine, eternal king. In the upper right corner we find several significant trees. Two of the trees signify birth—the cherry tree, since it is the first to bear fruit in the spring, and the birch tree, since it is the first to bring forth new leaves. The walnut tree represents Christ due to the threefold nature of its fruit. Both the ash tree and the oak tree signify the birth of a divine king.
Tapestry 2: The Unicorn at the Fountain
In this scene, the hunters gather around the unicorn and watch in awe as it dips its horn into the water. Hunters would not try to capture or kill their quarry while it is at rest. They will wait until it is "unharbored," or begins to flee. Then the chase is on!
Spiritual icons in this scene are abundant. Here we can see the entire drama of the fall of man, the restorative power of Christ, the existence of good and evil, and Christ’s battle against Satan.
The twelve hunters, symbolic of the twelve disciples, gather around a fountain from which flows a river. The fountain is surmounted by a pomegranate, a symbol of abundant life due to its abundance of seeds. Thus the fountain and the river signify the river of life.
We see the presence of evil and of sin in several forms. Once again the white campion flower is present, behind the foot of the hunter who is pointing at the unicorn. We also see a hyena (a symbol of the devil) under the orange tree in the lower right corner. The presence of the stag and the genet (weasel-like animal to the left of the hyena) tell that a serpent had been to the water, since both these animals are known to kill serpents. Thus we can deduce that the water had been poisoned by a serpent, or that the sins of mankind have polluted the waters of life and brought death into the world.
Yet the waters are being restored by the unicorn, who comes with healing in his horn. This is a beautiful image of how the sacrifice of Christ brings cleansing to mankind and restoration to the entire world.
Tapestry 3: The Unicorn Crosses the Stream
Now the hunt begins in earnest, as the hunters attempt to capture the unicorn. The unicorn has taken refuge in a stream in the same way that a hart (a type of deer) would attempt to escape its pursuers. In this scene, the hunters with spears represent the enemies of Christ who seek to kill Him.
Central to this scene is the image of baptism. In the foreground, on the near side of the stream, are many images of the Underworld, such as partridges (who steal other birds’ eggs), the hazel tree (from which divining rods were made), and the yellow iris (a symbol of the journey from one world to another). The bridge crossing the stream is a symbol of baptism since it shows the passing from one world to the next, in this case, from the world of sin to the realm of Christ.
Tapestry 4: The Unicorn Defends Himself
The unicorn was known to be a fierce and powerful beast that could never be captured by force. The fierceness of the unicorn alludes to the fact that no powers, principalities, or thrones can defeat Christ.
If you look closely, you will see that the unicorn in this scene has no ears. Figures without ears came to represent imminent betrayal. There are two reasons for this: First, they bring to mind the silence in the Garden of Gethsemane just before Christ was betrayed (referring to the sleeping disciples). Second, we are reminded of Peter’s cutting off the ear of a soldier at the time Christ was betrayed.
The pierced dog is a foretelling of the wound Christ will suffer. Upon closer examination you will see that underneath the dog, its blood is turning a violet into a rose. This tells of the power of the blood of Christ to make all things new and beautiful. Violets were symbols of humility, roses of Christ.
One other interesting detail in this scene is a felled beech tree (next to the hunter holding an axe, in the upper left corner). This signifies the impending death of a king.
Tapestry 5: The Unicorn is Captured
Only two small fragments of this tapestry remain, since they had been badly damaged during the time of the French revolution and the years afterward. (In fact, when the tapestries were found many years later, they were in a barn being used to cover vegetable bins.) If you will look closely under the unicorn's head, you will see an arm embracing it. This belongs to the maiden who should be the central figure.
It was said that a unicorn could never be captured by force, but if you put a virgin maid in an enclosed garden, he would leap into her lap. This is a beautiful rendering of the virgin birth, for Christ was not forced to come to earth, but He came willingly into Mary’s womb.
An enclosed garden was a symbol of purity. "A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed" (Song of Songs 4:12). The roses that grow along the fence are also symbols of the virgin Mary—white for her virginity, red for her charity. A hunter blowing a horn is often used as an image of the angel Gabriel making his annunciation to Mary, that she would bear the Son of God.
The maiden sits in the shadow of an apple tree, which represents the Holy Spirit and also the lover in Song of Songs (2:3): "As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste."
The entire scene brings to mind the words spoken to Mary by the angel Gabriel: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (Luke 1:35).
Tapestry 6: The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle
In this scene the unicorn is pictured twice: once as he is killed (upper left), and again as he is brought to the lord and lady of the castle.
As the unicorn is killed, he is pierced in the side, bringing to mind the piercing of Christ, when blood and water flowed from His side. The unicorn’s blood is caught in a hunter’s horn, referring to the medieval belief that the blood of Christ was captured in the chalice from the Last Supper.
As the dead unicorn is being carried across the river, his horn has been removed and is tied to his neck by a garland of oak and prickly holly, symbolizing his godhood and manhood, respectively, and also symbolizing the crown of thorns.
Underneath the unicorn’s head grows a triad of flowers that represent crucifixion, eternal life, and the hope of heaven. These are the carnation (whose seeds resemble nails), the Chinese lantern (whose bright color doesn’t fade in winter), and the yellow cowslip (known as St. Peter’s Keys).
The horse that is carrying the dead unicorn is crossing a stream, which represents the River Styx, the river that flows into Hades. This is attested to by the many plant and animal icons of the Underworld found on the near side. Among the Underworld icons are a squirrel, a hazel tree, a blackberry bramble, a white campion, thistles, a yellow iris, and three dogs leashed together (representing the three-headed dog Ceres who guards the gates of hell). Additionally, the presence of a pair of swans on the moat in the far distance tells of the afterlife, for it was believed that swans accompanied the souls of the dead to the next world.
All of this is a telling of the death of Christ and His descent into hell.
Tapestry 7: The Unicorn in Captivity
Once again we see the unicorn, but now he is alive and chained to a tree within an enclosed garden. Resurrection icons in this scene are abundant. The chain that holds the unicorn to the tree is known as a love chain. Here it is shown quite loose, indicating that the unicorn can leave if he wants, but he stays willingly. This represents the love of Christ for mankind that kept Him on the cross.
The tree is a combination of pomegranate and palm, symbols of abundant life and eternal life, respectively. The pomegranate fruit is so ripe, in fact, that some have burst open and are spilling onto the unicorn’s side. (The red on the unicorn here is not blood.)
As with tapestry 5, the enclosed garden represents purity. In this case, it is a symbol of heaven, where there will be no sin or sickness. All of the plant icons in this tapestry point to healing from illness, to repelling snakes and evil, and to purity. A cluster of bluebells is silhouetted in front of the unicorn—this flower was thought to repel all forms of evil. Additionally, there are three tiny animals in this scene: a butterfly, a dragonfly, and a frog. Each of these is a symbol of new life that comes after death.
Best of all, the gate to the enclosed garden is a cross, the only way to enter heaven. In front of the cross is a blue flag iris, said to repel serpents, thus neither the devil nor any kind of evil can enter here.
While the seven tapestries of "The Hunt of the Unicorn" depict thrilling hunt scenes, their main purpose is to tell the Christ story, and they do so quite beautifully.
There are way too many images in all of these tapestries to do a full analysis here. If anyone has questions about any images that I have not mentioned, or if you would like to know even deeper meanings behind anything I have mentioned here, I would love to hear from you. You can respond in the form of a comment to this blog.
If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy the novel "The Hunt of the Unicorn," available from Amazon.com. The novel is inspired by the tapestries, telling the story of the fall and redemption of mankind in a way that perhaps the tapestries had intended. Read more about it here.
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