Christian Art: the hunt of the unicorn

Angels and virgins and unicorns, oh my! Here’s a curious bit of Christian art history I have come across. From around 1330 AD a theme emerged in Medieval and Renaissance poetry art of the Virgin Mary as the hortus conclusus or “enclosed garden”. This was inspired by a verse from the Song of Songs which reads “You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain.” A variation of this theme, which emerged in the late 15th century, was to combine the Annunciation in the hortus conclusus with the Hunt of the Unicorn and Virgin and Unicorn themes, which were popular in secular art.

The unicorn already functioned as a symbol of the Incarnation by this era. Whether this meaning was intended in many “secular” depictions is matter of scholarly debate. But there is no such ambiguity in the scenes where the archangel Gabriel is shown blowing a horn as hounds chase the unicorn into the Virgin’s arms, and a little Christ Child descends on rays of light from God the Father.  Here the annunciation to the Virgin Mary as the hunt of the unicon is made explicit. Such images were however banned after the council of Trent as being too divorced from reality.

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