How come unicorns and virgins were closely related in the 16th century?
The so-called unicorn was in front of me. Scared yet amazed, I walked towards it to have a better look. The fur was so smooth and shiny, it looked like a white velvet coat. The pearl white horn was shiny and blinding. But the most amazing feature of the unicorn were the eyes. I tried to touch it, when all of a sudden, it disappeared. There was nothing left but a layer of fine silver dust on my fingers. I lost it, forever.
(End of Fiction)
Unicorns have always been considered magical and mysterious creatures. At some point, they were even thought to be real. There are so many legends and theories around them, so these mystical creatures have permeated the art world in tons of different creations. One of the most interesting pieces of work that include unicorns can be traced back to the Middle Ages.
During the sixteenth century, a Parisian artist named Nicolas des Innocents was summoned by Jean Le Viste, a nobleman who asked him to design a series of battle-themed tapestries for his house. Thinking that it would be too aggressive for home decorations, Nicolas’ wife, Geneviève, persuaded him to go for a more gentle approach: the taming of a unicorn.
Then, Nicolas designed a series of six tapestries named La Dame à La Licorne (The Lady and The Unicorn). Geneviève and her daughter, Claude, are protagonists of these tapestries alongside other other creatures, among them, a unicorn. Handmade by a Belgian weaver master, Georges de la Chapelle, these artworks have a millefleurs background, which was signature of that time. Each piece was made through a weaving technique that was highly practiced in the region of Flanders (north Belgium).
At that time, it was believed that eac of the tapestries represented the five senses. The first one shows a lady touching the unicorn's horn. In the second one, she is taking sweets from a dish. In the third one, she is making a flower crown. The fourth shows her playing a musical instrument. Then in the fifth, she is holding a mirror. The sixth, however, displays the phrase “À Mon Seul Désir” (My sole desire), which has been interpreted in several different ways.
One of the many interpretations suggests that the woman keeping a necklace in a chest represents an act of abdication of her passions. The purity of this lady could be seen as a symbolic demonstration of virginity. Being that unicorns are considered very unique animals, they were highly respected and appreciated. Likewise, virginity and purity were precious at that time. Actually, chastity even removed the possibility of having a sexual identity, therefore virgins were as mysterious and intriguing as a unicorn.
That's why during the sixteenth century, people believed that only virgins would be eligible to tame these creatures, and not just that. It was said that using a virgin as bait was the only way to catch a unicorn, since these animals would only approach them. Sure, it was pretty much an urban legend, but let’s keep in mind that at that time, fantastic creatures, such as unicorns and dragons, were perceived in a very different way. People actually believed unicorns existed. What a magical time, right?
All in all, artworks such as La Dame à La Licorne, more than just talking about unicorns and virginity, are a pictorial perception of how society felt sexuality at that time, especifically, female sexuality. During the sixteenth century, that particular topic was not as developed and as spoken as it right now. That’s why it felt like a mystery, like part of the unknown, valuable yet undisclosed. Luckily, that’s not the case anymore. Sure, unicorns are still popular and mysterious, but as far as I know, they don’t have anything to do with virgins anymore.
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