Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art

Study by John Vinycomb

“Yon lion placed two unicorns between that rampant with a silver sword  is seen is for the king of Scotland’s  banner known.” Ariosto (Hoole’s translation)

“The lion and the unicorn fighting for the crown.” Old Nursery Rhyme

THE unicorn is represented by heraldic usage as having the head and body of a horse, with the tail of a lion, and the limbs and hoofs of a stag; a twisted horn grows out from the centre of its forehead. It is rarely met with as a coat-of-arms. As a crest or supporter it is of more frequent occurrence. A unicorn’s head is a favourite bearing, either erased, or couped, at the shoulder, and always represented in profile.

The unicorn was a famous device all over Europe, and symbolised the virtue of the mind and the strength of the body. It is well known as a supporter of the Royal Arms of England, a position it has occupied since the accession of James VI. of Scotland to the English throne as James I.

Two silver unicorns were the supporters to the arms of that kingdom. On the legislative union with England, the red dragon of Wales, introduced by Henry VII., gave place to the unicorn as the sinister supporter.

James III. of Scotland had it figured on coins which were thence called “unicorns.” James V. first used it with the national arms as supporters. Although the silver unicorn came into England with James I., Queen Jane Seymour had already adopted it.

“Unicorn” was the pursuivant of Lord Lyon King-at-Arms, the Royal Scottish Herald.

As a supporter to the Royal arms it is thus blazoned: A unicorn argent, armed, unguled, crined and gorged or, with a royal coronet (i.e., composed of crosses patée and fleurs-de -lis), having a chain affixed thereto, and reflexed over his back of the last.

The term “armed” has reference to his horn, “unguled” to his hoofs, and “crined” to his flowing mane. “Gorged” implies that the coronet encircles his “gorge” or throat. The term “or” (that is, the metal gold or the tincture of it) being only mentioned after the several parts implies that they are all alike to be gold. “Of the last” means of the last colour mentioned.

In “The History of Caricature and Grotesque in Literature and Art,” by Thomas Wright, M.A., F.S.A. (p. 8), appears a curious illustration from an Egyptian papyrus of the Roman period, in the British Museum. It represents a lion and a unicorn playing a game resembling draughts, perhaps the earliest instance of the two animals depicted in conjunction. As the author says: “The lion has evidently gained the victory and is fingering the money; his bold air of swaggering superiority as well as the look of surprise and disappointment of his vanquished opponent are by no means ill-pictured.”

The animosity which existed between the lion and unicorn is referred to by Spenser, and is allegorical of the animosity which once existed between England and Scotland:

“Like as a lyon whose imperiall powre
 A proud rebellious unicorne defyes.”
Faerie Queen, ii. 5.

Mediaeval Conception of the Unicorn

The mediæval conception of the unicorn as the water-conner of the beasts was doubtless suggested by that belief of earlier ages which made the unicorn not merely symbolical of virtue and purity, but the more immediate emblem of Christ as the horn of our salvation (Psalms xcii. 10 and lxxxix. 17, 24), expressly receiving its general fulfilment in him (St. Luke i. 69).

The horn, as an antidote to all poison, was also believed to be emblematical of the conquering or destruction of sin by the Messiah, and as such it appears in the catacombs at Rome. The unicorn is the companion of St. Justiana, as an emblem betokening in the beautiful legend her pure mind, resisting all the Geraldine-like dreams sent by magic art to haunt her, till she converted her tormentor himself.

He is remarkable, say the old writers, for his great strength, but more for his great and haughty mind, as he would rather die than be brought into subjection (Job xxxix. 10–12).

It was believed the only way to capture him was to leave a beautiful young virgin in the place where he resorted. When the animal perceived her, he would come and lie quietly down beside her, resting his head upon her lap, and fall asleep, when he would he surprised by the hunters who lay in wait to destroy him.

The unicorn is one of the most famous of all the chimerical monsters of antiquity. The Scriptures make repeated mention of such a creature, but of its shape we can form little conception. In Early Christian Art the unicorn symbolised the highest and purest virtue; not only was it one of the noblest bearings in the heraldry of the Middle Ages, but was
viewed as the immediate emblem of our Blessed Lord. Philippe de Thaun says in his “Bestiarius”:

“Monocéros est beste
 Une corne a en la tête
 Cette beste en verité nous signifie Dieu.”

Whence comes the unicorn? It is older than the days of Job. Among the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt this wonderful creature is depicted. Sometimes the body is that of an ass, sometimes that of a bull, sometimes that of a horse with the long twisted frontal horn for which he is noted. Is the myth derived from some mysterious single-horned antelope, as has been said, or is the one-horned rhinoceros the prototype of the legendary unicorn? As an emblem it figures on the obelisks of Nimroud and the catacombs of Rome. We read of this strange creature in Herodotus, and in Aristotle, who calls it the “wild ass”; Pliny calls it the “Indian ass,” describing it as like a horse with a horn fixed in the front of his head. Cæsar counts it among the fauna of the Hyrcinian Forest.

The earliest author who describes it is Ctesias (B.C. 400), who derives it from India. According to an Eastern legend the unicorn is found in Abyssinia. Lobo also describes it in his history of that country: there the animals are undisturbed by man, and live after their own laws. “Of the many ancient and famous men,” says a modern writer, “who have written about the unicorn, no two seem to agree except when they copy from one another.”

“Some writers” (says Guillim, p. 175) “have made doubt whether there be any such beast as this or no. But the great esteem of his horn (in many places to be seen) may take away that needless scruple.”

The Horn of the Unicorn

“The unicorn whose horn is worth a city.”
Decker, “Gull’s Hornbook.”

The horn of the unicorn was supposed to be the most powerful antidote against, as it was a sure test of, poisons.

He was therefore invested by the other beasts of the forest with the office of “water-conner,” none daring to taste of fountain or pool until he had stirred the water with his horn, to discover whether any dragon or serpent had deposited his venom therein, and render it innocuous.

So complete was the faith in the efficacy of the wonder-working horn as a test of poisons, that fabulous store was set upon the possession of even a portion. In old inventories the “Essai” of Unicorn’s horn is frequently mentioned.

1391. Un manche d’or d’un essai de licourne pour attoucher aux viandes de monsigneur le Dauphin.—”Comptes Royaux.”
1408. Une pièce de licorne à pour faire essai, à ung bou. d’argent.—Inv. des ducs de Bourgogne.
1536. Une touche de licorne, garni d’or, pour faire essai.—Inv. de Charles Quint.

An Italian author who visited England in the reign of Henry VII., speaking of the wealth of the religious houses in this country, says: “And I have been informed that, amongst other things, many of these monasteries possess unicorns’ horns of an extraordinary size.” Hence such a horn was worthy to be placed among the royal jewels.

At the head of an inventory taken in the first year of Queen Elizabeth and preserved in the Harleian Library (No. 5953) we read “Imprimis, a piece of unicorn’s horn,” which, as probably the most important object, is named first. This was no doubt the piece seen by the German traveller Hentzner, at Windsor: “We were shown here, among other things, the horn of a unicorn of about eight spans and a half in length, valued at about £10,000.” Peacham places “that horne of Windsor, of an unicorn very likely,” amongst the sights worth seeing.

“One little cup of unicorn’s horn” was also in possession of Queen Elizabeth, and was subsequently given by James I. to his Queen.

Alviano, a celebrated general of the Venetian Republic, when he took Viterbo, and dispersed the Gatesca faction, whom he called the poison of the city, caused to be embroidered upon his standard a unicorn at a fountain surrounded by snakes and toads and other reptiles, and stirring up the water with his horn before he drinks, with the motto or legend “Venene pello” (I expel poison).

Although the unicorn has not been seen and described by any modern writer, its horn has been occasionally found, sometimes preserved in museums, but alas! the cherished horn, whenever it is examined, turns out to be a narwhal’s tooth. To this, Wood’s “Natural History” makes special reference: “In former days, an entire tusk of a narwhal was considered to possess an inestimable value, for it was looked upon as the weapon of the veritable unicorn reft from his forehead in despite of his supernatural strength and intellect. Setting aside the rarity of the thing, it derived a practical value from its presumed capability of disarming all poisons of their terrors, and of changing the deadliest draught into a wholesome beverage.”

This antidotal potency was thought to be of vital service to the unicorn, whose residence was in the desert among all kinds of loathsome beasts and poisonous reptiles, whose touch was death and whose look was contamination. The springs and pools at which such monsters quenched their thirst were saturated with poison by their contact, and would pour a fiery death through the veins of any animal that partook of them. But the unicorn, by dropping the tip of his horn into the pool, neutralised the venom and rendered the deadly waters harmless. This admirable quality of the unicorn’s horn was a great recommendation in days when the poisoned chalice crept too frequently upon the festive board, and a king could receive no worthier present than a goblet formed from such valuable material.

Even a few shavings of the unicorn’s horn were purchased at high prices, and the ready sale for such antidotes led to considerable adulteration—a fact which is piteously recorded by an old writer, who tells us that “some wicked persons do make a mingle-mangle thereof, as I saw among the Venetians, being, as I here say, compounded with lime and sope, or peradventure with earth or some stone (which things are apt to make bubbles arise), and afterwards sell it for the unicorn’s horn.” The same writer, however, supplies an easy test, whereby the genuine substance may be distinguished from the imposition. “For experience of the unicorn’s horn to know whether it be right or not; put silk upon a burning coal, and upon the silk the aforesaid horn, and if so be that it be true, the silk will not be a whit consumed.”

Examples.—Argent, a unicorn rampant (sometimes sejant sable armed and unguled or), is borne by Harling, Suffolk.

Another of the name bears the unicorn courant in chief with additional charges upon the shield.

Azure, a unicorn couchant, argent between twelve cross crosslets, or.—Doon.

Argent a chevron engrailed gules between three unicorns’ heads, erased azure.—Horne.

Religious emblems were in great favour with the early printers; some of them for this reason adopted the unicorn as their sign. Thus John Harrison lived at the Unicorn and Bible in Paternoster Row, 1603.

Again, the reputed power of the horn caused the animal to be taken as a supporter for the Apothecaries’ arms, and as a constant signboard by chemists.

The great value set upon unicorn’s horn caused the Goldsmiths of London to adopt this animal as their sign.

Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art
by John Vinycomb, 1909

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