What We Aren’t Seeing

THE UNICORN RESTS IN THE GARDEN, FROM THE HUNT FOR THE UNICORN TAPESTRIES, 1495–1505

From The Paris Review:

How appropriate that a museum show devoted to the unicorn—a mythical animal whose name has come to mean something so rare and elusive that it might or might not exist—should have failed to materialize. “A Blessing of Unicorns” was slated to bring the fifteenth-century unicorn tapestries from the Musée de Cluny in Paris together with their counterparts in the Cloisters at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as part of a celebration honoring the Met’s one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary. Scheduled for 2020, the show was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. An exhibit of medieval art fell victim to plague, that most medieval of dangers.

The Met’s beautifully illustrated Summer 2020 bulletin, A Blessing of Unicorns: The Paris and Cloisters Tapestries, not only shows us what we missed but may make us rethink our view of unicorns—a subject that, to be honest, hadn’t crossed my mind in years. I used to think about unicorns a lot. In fact I lived with one, you could say: a reproduction of The Unicorn Rests in a Garden hung in my childhood bedroom. I used to stare at the dark fields so thickly covered with impossibly perfect flowers, and at the unicorn in its small round enclosure, so sweet, so melancholy, so lonely—so like the spirit of a preteen girl infused into the body of a white horse with a single corkscrew horn.

It came as something of a shock to see it again, as I looked through the Met minicatalogue and read the lucid informative essay by Barbara Drake Boehm, the senior curator at the Cloisters. And as I read, I saw something in the image I had never seen before. How could I not have noticed that the unicorn’s hide is streaked with blood, that thin rivulets of crimson trickle down the smooth white flesh as it rests so patiently in its circular enclosure? Some scholars have argued that the red streaks are pomegranate juice, the symbol of fertility, but it looks like blood to me, and it seems unlikely that the dog nibbling the unicorn’s back in The Unicorn Surrenders to a Maiden is dribbling red fruit nectar.

What would I have thought, as a child, if I’d known that this delicate, graceful creature was an animal to be hunted, like one of the endangered-species safari trophies.

. . . .

And what would I have concluded if I’d been told that this slaughter could not be accomplished without the willing assistance of an agreeable virgin?

Apparently, the unicorn was not only swift but strong, capable of killing an elephant with its horn. The hunters could not get near it on their own. That was why you needed the virgin. The unicorn liked to lay its head in a virgin’s lap, and, while it was distracted, the hunters closed in. The virgin was bait. In case the implications escape us and we miss the ramifications—the preciousness of female purity and the relative contamination of female sexuality—here is Richard de Fournival, the thirteenth-century chancellor of the Cathedral of Amiens and author of The Bestiary of Love:

I was captured also by smell … like the Unicorn which falls asleep in the sweet smell of maidenhood … no one dares to attack or ambush it except a young virgin. For when the unicorn senses a virgin by her smell, it kneels in front of her and gently humbles itself to be of service. Consequently, the clever hunters who know its nature place a maiden in its path, and it falls asleep in her lap. And then, when it is asleep the hunters, who have not the courage to pursue it while awake, come out and kill it.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Not much to do with books and writing, but PG had not considered unicorns for some time and the parts of the OP that weren’t political were satisfying to him.

3 thoughts on “What We Aren’t Seeing”

  1. It’s very sad that this exhibition didn’t get to happen. I’ve loved these amazing tapestries from afar almost my whole life, and still hope to see them in person someday. I was obsessed with unicorns as a child, to the extent of semi-believingly searching for one (though not to slaughter!) in the woods and fields around my home.

    I was, however, a little baffled by the statement that “the parts of the OP that weren’t political were satisfying.” The only political parts of the article I could find were the brief comparison of the hunted unicorn to “one of the endangered-species safari trophies so proudly displayed by Don Junior and Eric Trump” (which is a fact attested by abundant photographic evidence), and this one paragraph near the end:

    “Perhaps the cruelty and bloody-mindedness of this year has brought carnage into sharper focus. It’s unnerving, even embarrassing, but I always (or almost always) like having my eyes opened to something I didn’t notice, even though it was right in front of me all along. It wasn’t as if it had never occurred to me, how severely our society has been poisoned and deformed by racism and income inequality. But the events of this summer, the Black Lives Matter protests and the horrifying statistics that reveal how much more severely the poor and people of color have suffered from the pandemic have made it impossible not to see the blood. I used to say that our democracy was a fragile institution, that what happened to turn other democracies into dictatorships could easily happen here. But I don’t think I really believed it until recently.”

    Which strikes me as…not actually political? I don’t see how anyone could argue it *has* been a great year for peaceful and functional democracy or the already disadvantaged, unless the isolated ivory tower in which one dwells is far from any centers of population and has no TV, internet, cell phone coverage, or any more primitive source of news. We can debate the best way to solve these problems, the way we used to back in the 20th century, but it’s pretty clear that something since then has gone terribly, terribly wrong. I sincerely pity anyone – especially anyone evidently intelligent and thoughtful – whose Red Tribe Vs. Blue Tribe enemy-alert system is so sensitively calibrated as to be triggered by a statement not only so brief, not only so well-supported by widely-known facts, but so broadly and gently phrased.

    • It might be that the numbers presented are incomplete and cherry picked.
      Some would consider that partisan political.

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