The Unicorn in Stained Glass
In this month’s issue Jenny Wischnewsky of the German CVMA (Potsdam) writes about the unicorn in stained glass. Familiar in Great Britain only as an armorial supporter in post-medieval glass, the image of this mythical beast has a fascinating history.
dixit quoque Deus producat terra animam viventem in genere suo iumenta et reptilia et bestias terrae secundum species suas factumque est ita.
And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kinde, cattell, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kinde: and it was so. (Genesis, I, 24)
According to the first chapter of Genesis, after creating the creatures of the air and the water, on the sixth day God created cattle, all creatures that crawl, and the beasts of the earth. The Bible does not specify the types of animal more closely, so we find a variety of different types of animal represented in depictions of the creation story. In the Genesis Window in Erfurt Cathedral (sII, c. 1370) is represented, opposite the creator, an unusual assembly of animals, which is not otherwise found in depictions of this theme in stained glass [Fig. 1]. Among the real animals – the lion, deer, lamb and birds – is shown a unicorn with a long horn [Fig. 2]. Although the window in Erfurt is the only extant example of this theme found in stained glass, it occurs more frequently in illuminated manuscripts of biblical adaptations, where mythical and real animals are presented on an equal footing. We could perhaps count the unicorn – with its goat-like form and characteristic horn on the forehead – as one of the creatures of paradise, which as such adds colour to the depictions of Adam naming the animals (Genesis, II, 20) and the fall from grace (Genesis, III): in this context, no distinction is made between mythical and real animals. In any case, the existence of the unicorn was hardly a matter of doubt in the Middle Ages.
The idea of a creature with a single horn characterized by unusual strength and invincibility derived from antiquity, and was taken up and disseminated in medieval encyclopedias. Yet, the inclusion of the unicorn in biblical contexts can be treaced back to an erroneous translation in the Greek version of the Old Testament: the animal named at various points in the Hebrew text, the reʼem (a two-horned wild bull) is rendered in the Septuagint (the translation into Greek of the Old Testament) as monokerōs (a single-horned creature). Clearly, the reʼem was not familiar to the Greek translators, do they replaced is with an animal with similar characteristics. Eventually, this animal was taken over in some places in the Vulgate (the fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible) and the word rendered as unicornis. It is however the account of the unicorn in the Physiologus (a famous text with descriptions and moralizing accounts of various animals, both real and mythical) formed medieval notions of the unicorn: ʻIt is a small animal, like a little billy-goat, and it is peaceful and most gentle. Hunters are not able to come anywhere near the animal, since it is so strong. It has a horn in the middle of its brow.ʼ Together with the lions, the unicorn takes a prominent place among the animals in the Erfurt Genesis Window: it is situated on the left-hand edge of the picture, near the creator, who is represented in panel 4a to the left. The lion and the unicorn stand for the beasts of the earth, and are also mentioned together in the Psalms (XXI, 22 in the Vulgate numbering), as examples of strong, wild beasts.
The extraordinary popularity of this mythical beast stems however from its christological and typological significance, which is found in the account of the animal in the Physiologus after its description: the wild unicorn only allows to be tamed in the lap of the Virgin, in the same way that Christ chose the ever-virgin Mary as his mother. At the same time, reference is being made to the immaculate conception of the Virgin. The account of the unicorn also reports that the horn of the unicorn is able to neutralize poison. The theme of the Virgin alone with the unicorn remained an extremely popular image of the Mary’s virginity until the sixteenth century. The unicorn/Virgin group is frequently found in panel paintings, manuscript illumination and tapestries, usually in a Marian context. There are very few examples of this motif in stained glass however; in Lyons Cathedral, the Virgin is depicted with the unicorn next to a representation of the Annunciation (beginning of the thirteenth century). The group features as a marginal scene in the same way in a medallion window at Saint-Ouen in Rouen (c.1330). A much later example that is more decorative in character is found above a representation of the Annunciation in the Tree of Jesse Window in Sens Cathedral (c.1503).
Finally, in the first half of the fifteenth century, this imagery was expanded in complex manner. Through an assimilation of the idea of the unicorn hunt with the Annuciation, the image of the allegorical unicorn hunt as a representation of Christ’s incarnation arose: within the hortus conclusus, the unicorn occupies its position in the lap of the ever-virgin Mary as a symbol of Christ. The hunter chasing the animal is the angel Gabriel, who thereby simultaneously brings the news of Christ’s birth to Mary. At the point when the animal is tamed by Mary, the incarnation of Christ is accomplished. Representations of the allegorical unicorn hunt were a favourite motif in all artistic media in the fifteenth and at the start of the sixteenth century, mainly in German areas. The allegorical unicorn hunt is the main theme of a window, probably of Cologne origin, in the chapel at King’s College, Cambridge. By contrast, a panel in the Heylshofmuseum in Worms shows the hunt among the branches above a representation of the Madonna within an aureole. The theme appears to have spread out from Thuringia: the earliest representation of the allegorical unicorn hunt appears in the middle of the central panel of a triptych in Erfurt Cathedral (c.1430). Later examples of images on the same theme are found in Erfurt and the surrounding area. In the late Middle Ages, the capital of Thuringia was one of the largest German cities, as well as being a spiritual centre, on account of the large number of churches and monasteries with their associated schools. As a result, allegorical representations, such as of the unicorn, were especially popular and were developed. This is also evident from its appearance in the Genesis Window in the choir at Erfurt, and from the prominent position afforded it there.
Jenny Wischnewsky, CVMA Deutschland/Potsdam
1. The animals most frequently represented are lions, bulls and horses. On this see J. Zahlten, Creatio mundi: Darstellungen der sechs Schöpfungstage und naturwissenschaftliches Weltbild im Mittelalter (Stuttgart, 1979), pp. 191ff., and H. Martin von Erffa, Ikonologie der Genesis: Die christlichen Bildthemen aus dem Alten Testament und ihre Quellen, 2 vols (Berlin, 1989 und 1995), p. 75.
2. On the window, see H. Goern, Die gotischen Bildfenster im Dom zu Erfurt (Dresden, 1961), pp. 41ff., and E. Drachenberg, Die mittelalterliche Glasmalerei im Erfurter Dom, Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi Deutschland XV, 2 [published as Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi DDR 1, 2], 2 vols (Berlin etc., 1980 und 1983). The representation of the lamb and the large parts of the deer are restorations.
3. Legends from India about a one-horned beast were the main source for western representations of the animal. On the unicorn, see the still fundamental and sound research of J. W. Einhorn, Spiritalis unicornis: das Einhorn als Bedeutungsträger in Literatur und Kunst des Mittelalters (Munich 1976). On the encyclopedias, see C. Cohn, Zur literarischen Geschichte des Einhorns, Teil II, Wissenschaftliche Beilage zum Jahresbericht der Elften Städtischen Realschule zu Berlin (Berlin, 1897), p. 16.
4. On this see H. Brandenburg’s article on the unicorn in the Reallexikon zur Deutschen Kunstgeschichte, IV (no date), col. 844, and Einhorn 1976 (see n. 3).
5. Numbers XXIII, 22; Deuteronomy XXXIII, 17; Job XLXI, 9–12; Psalms XXII (XXI), 22; XXIX (XXVIII), 6; XCII (XCI), 11; LXXVII, 60. The psalm numbers in brackets are those of the Vulgate.
6. The unicorn was earlier interpreted as a symbol of Christ by the church fathers and authors such as Justin the Martyr, Tertullian, Ambrosius and Basil of Caesarea. They referred to the characteristics of the unicorn identified in the biblical passages where it appears, such as its superior strength and single horn.
7. Lyons Cathedral, central window of the apse; Rouen Saint-Ouen, medallion window of the fourth ambulatory chapel; Sens Cathedral, east wall of the south transept, by Jean Verrat, Lievin and Balthazar Godon de Troyes
8. Gabriel is usually accompanied by hunting dogs that embody the virtues. In addition, representations are often enriched with further Marian symbolism.
9. See the examples in Einhorn 1976 (see n. 3).