The ancient ties of the maiden and the unicorn (as discussed in the earlier post “Who is She?–The Lady and the Unicorn”) stayed as an amazingly stable narrative from early times through “The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestry series. The balance between the wild and the domestic, coupled with the gentle lure of the lovely maiden, all play their traditional parts in the story.
But the rise of medieval allegory added an interesting twist to the meaning of the unicorn, which can obscure the original roles. Allegory is the use of symbolically rich images representing ideas. This is especially useful in an age of low literacy rates. Complicated social ideas can be conveyed, using allegory, in a single image/scene. But this only works if the viewers have their own internal “magic decoder ring” and know what is being presented in the image.
For instance, in the tapestry presented right (roughly contemporary to the Unicorn Tapestries), the three fates are spinning thread together using a distaff and drop spindle. Showing three women of different ages spinning together would, for the medieval viewer, instantly brought to mind the three fates (which as shown here also clearly mimics the triple-phase goddess of maiden, mother, and crone). Just in case there’s confusion, these ladies also have their names in Latin written near their heads.
But below them lays another lady prostrate. In fact, they are stepping on her. The representation of stepping on someone (or running them over with a cart) in medieval and Renaissance art meant conquest. Here, we know this defeated lady by her broken staff of lilies as “Chastity.” This piece would likely have been labeled “The fates conquer chastity” or “Chastity is conquered by fate.”
Having concepts like virginity, death, or love represented as people is an anthropomorphising of the forces at work in human lives. There are several notable works of art (including tapestry) from this historic period showing a series of processions, including “Love Triumphs” (people getting squished), followed by “Chastity Triumphs over Love” (Cupid gets squished), then “Death Triumphs over Chastity” (lady chastity gets squished), then “Fame Triumphs over Death” (grim reaper character is squished), then “Time Triumphs over Fame” (winged hornblower gets squished), then “Eternity Triumphs over Time” (and everyone but Christ is under the wagon wheels). Whenever Chastity is shown, she carries her lilies (or a palm branch) atop her adorned cart, aided by a procession of demure maidens as escorts. Now and then, young men are present too. Shown here, Chastity’s conquest includes a bound cupid (Eros). Pulling her sumptuous wagon are a pair of unicorns, harnessed to their yokes like horses.
The association of having unicorns pull the human icon representing Chastity draws from the older Lady and Unicorn mythos, but here is where an important symbolic transference happens. While the unicorn had once been the symbol of the mystique of the wild, tamed by the hands of the virgin maid, now the unicorn is imparted with the maiden’s own symbolism. Do any quick search on the meaning of unicorns in art and “chastity” arises as one of the top hits. I find this particularly interesting, since the single, erect horn of the unicorn is also widely considered a strong phallic symbol. How can these two meanings live in one animals?
Perhaps a culturally important note to consider is the role of chastity in late medieval/early Renaissance society. There is the obvious case in point of women remaining virgin until marriage (which, for the high-born was most often an arranged affair built on family alliances and land deals…more like a business transaction). Young ladies were felt to be fully adult at age 12, which was also the legal marrying age for girls (boys having to wait until they were 14). It was believed that a woman’s best child-bearing years were in their teens, which reflects the general state of health and nutrition in the age.
Alternately, marriage prospects for a woman who had become pregnant out of wedlock were especially bleak–unless she happened to be a powerful and influential mistress to a nobleman. But her situation was still rocky at best and her children without the inheritance of their “legitimate” half-siblings. Many a discontented or back-stabbing turn in Western history finds it seeds in illegitimacy. No wonder chastity was considered the best option for unmarried women!
The other aspect to consider was the great wealth and social prominence of monastic orders at this time (including in England, where the dissolution of the monasteries had not yet been enacted). Noble families were often expected to bequeath a child to a monastic order and with her (or him) gifts of land and/or money for the child’s keeping. For girls going to convents, this would include their dowry as they were viewed as being “married” to Christ. Life in a monastery was strictly chase, in keeping with the contemporary ascetic traditions, but not without its politics. Daughters of earls and barons often rose to the ranks of abbess (and likewise for the men in their orders). These women in the nunneries were considered important emissaries between the family and God’s holiness–keeping the lay members of the clan in good spiritual standing. The nun or monk in the family served, through purity and devotion to spiritual matters, to maintain that fragile balance between the carnal and the eternal.
So what are we to make of the unicorn–one part chastity and one part virility? Is this paradox a historical anomaly? In a world steeped in allegory, how does one animal hold both, or is this part of the great mystery and lure of the unicorn? Is the symbolism of the unicorn as representing chastity a transference from the virgin maid herself in the rose garden with the unicorn upon her lap, or is it integral to the beast? In the Unicorn Tapestries, we see this chimera as both fierce and gentle, warlike and demure, so perhaps it intrinsically holds the capability of duality in unity (part of what makes a chimera a chimera–two things put together).
It is, then, perhaps not surprising that as the unicorn also became an animistic symbol of Christ in medieval art that the maiden became linked with the Virgin Mary, who holds the dualist role of both maiden and mother. Over time, these overlays of narrative, symbolism, allegorical use, and interpretation have crafted the complex weave of the story represented by the lady and the unicorn–a story integral to understanding the Unicorn Tapestries.