Article written by certain "Herr B. Eckl, of Cologne, and the Editor".


The Sacristy: A Quarterly Review of Sacred Archeology, Christian Symbolical ZoologyEdit

English originalEdit

"The Unicorn, my lords," says the author of the Propretez des Bestes, "is a beast very cruel, who has a great and sturdy body like a horse. His defence is a great and long horn of half a fathom, so pointed and so hard that there is nothing it will not pierce when the unicorn thrusts with all his might. His virtue is so great that he kills the elephant when he meets her, with his horn, and thrusts it into her belly. This beast is so strong that he cannot be taken by huntsmen except by subtlety. When they want to get him, they procure a virgin and place her where the beast repairs and makes his place of rest. If the unicorn sees her, and she is a virgin, he goes and lies down in her lap without doing her an injury, and there he goes to sleep. Then come the hunters, and they kill him on the lap of the virgin. But if she is not a virgin, the unicorn will not rest there, but kills the corrupt and defiled young woman.

Saint Gregory says in his book on Job, that the unicorn is a very proud beast, and that when caught, he cannot be tamed or kept, but dies of grief. Doctor Pliny also says in his 8th book, that when he wants to fight the elephant, which he hates mortally, he sharpens and points his horn against stones, just as a butcher would sharpen his knife to kill a beast. And in the battle that takes place, the unicorn pierces the belly of the elephant, which is the weakest part of that animal.

The unicorn is great and stout as a horse, but has shorter legs. He is of a tan colour. There are three kinds of beasts called unicorns. Some the body of a horse, the head of a deer, and the tail of a boar, and these have black horns, browner than the others. These have the horn two ells long. Some do not call these unicorns but monoteros or monoceron. The other kind of unicorn is eglisseron, that is to say, the common goat. This is great and tall as a big horse, and is like a squirrel, and has a great very pointed horn. The third kind of unicorn is like an ox, and is spotted with white. This one has a horn between brown and black, like the first kind of which we have spoken. This one is furious, like a bull, when he sees his enemy."[1]

This description, which is taken, for the most part, from the chapter entitled Rhinoceros, in Bartholomew Glanville's "De Rerum Proprietatibus," agrees with the traditional account given of the unicorn by ancient writers. Ctesias says that the unicorn of India has the size of a horse, a white body, the head purple, they eyes blue, one horn on the brow, the length of an ell, red at the point and white at the roots, and a beautiful black in the middle.[2]

Aristotle simply says, "We have never seen an animal with a solid hoof with two horns, and there are only a few that have a solid hoof and one horn, as the Indian ass and the oryx. Of all animals with a solid hoof the Indian ass alone has a talus."[3] Pliny says merely that the unicorn is the Indian ass; but Ælian gives all the details.

Ctesias adds that the horn of the unicorn was highly valued, and that out of it princes made cups, and that when they drank out of these cups they could not be poisoned, nor were they subject to epilepsy or convulsions.[4] Bochart, in his "Herozoica," relates on Arabic authority that in the East princes used the horn for the handles of knives, and that the horn sweated when the blade touched poisoned meats. He relates also that if the horn be cut transversely it is found to contain the figure of a man, a bird, or some other object in white, drawn on the interior of the horn. The symbol of the unicorn flying to the lap of the Virgin, and there resting, was very popular in the Middle Ages as a type of the Incarnation. S. Isidore says, "Such is the strength of the unicorn, that it can be captured in no fashion, but as is asserted by those who have written on the nature of animals, if a virgin be there, and she opens her lap, the unicorn, laying aside all his ferocity, places his head there, and then goes to sleep, and is caught in his weakness."[5] The same story is told by Eustathius, Peter Damien, Albertus Magnus, and Tzetzes.

The unicorn reposing in the lap of the B. Virgin as a symbol of the Incarnation is occasionally met with in Mediæval sculpture and stained glass. Richard of S. Laurent[6] applies the type directly: "Virgo (Maria) quæ sævum rhinocerotem mansuescere fecit in suo gremio virginali."

A curious German woodcut of the beginning of the 16th century represents the Archangel Gabriel blowing a horn as a hunter, and inciting three hounds in pursuit of the unicorn, Christ, who is flying for refuge to the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.[7] Other pictures are more explicit, and the inscriptions accompanying the figures fully explain their signification. The name of Our Lady is written above the seated Virgin, from the horn of the angel issues a scroll, with the angelic salutation inscribed thereon, whilst the four dogs are labelled Justice, Peace, Mercy, and Truth.

As a symbol of virginity, the unicorn appears as the characteristic of S. Justine of Antioch, whose virtue was exposed to every sort of artifice, but in vain. S. Firmin, the martyr, is represented on the portal of S. Riguier, with his feet on two unicorns, these being the supporters of the arms of Amiens, of which he was bishop.

At Clapton, Northamptonshire, is a stone coffin, of about the date of 1200, which was under a low arch in the old church. It has in front and on the foot end a panelled arcade, consisting partly of intersecting semicircular arches, and partly of pointed arches. On the head end are a lion and a palm tree. The lower seven inches were sunk into the ground. The edge of the lid is ornamented with dog tooth or six-leaved flowers. On the lid are nondescript animals and foliage, and the prominent object is an unicorn attacking with his horn a lion, who has the horn between his teeth. We have described this tomb at some length, because on it is the earliest English example of the unicorn we know. Whether the sculpture in this instance refers to the crusading adventures of the knight buried under it, or whether the tomb be of a later date than the style seems to indicate, and the combat between the unicorn and the lion symbolizes the war of the Scots and English, in which he took part, we are not prepared to decide.

  1. "Traditions Tératologiques," p. 559-560
  2. "Indic.," c. XXV.
  3. "Hist. Anim.m" lib. ii. c. 2, § 8.
  4. Pt. i. lib. iii. c. vi. p. 937.
  5. Origin., lib. xii. c. 2.
  6. "De laudibus S. Virgin.," lib. vi.
  7. Das Beschlossenen Garten, 1505; reproduced in Cahier: Caractéristiques des Saints, p. 45.

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