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This isn't so much a question about theology or denominational teachings as Church history.

In an answer to a question on another StackExchange site, someone posted this:

I am an Art Historian, and I have recently made a research on the Unicorn symbology in the Middle Ages Art. The unicorn is an christological symbol. In the book physiologus (popular book in the middle ages about magical creatures and so on) the unicorn is described as hard to capture. Only a virgin could do this. This unicorn myth has been used as a symbol (incarnation) of Christ, who has been born by the virgin Mary.

That got my interest, so I searched, and there is some apparent truth to this, and some undocumented statements claim that some monks agreed with this.

For example, from: http://www.superglossary.com/Definition/Literature/Christological_Figure.html

...the unicorn in medieval bestiaries, which would lie down and place its phallic, ivory-horned meekly in a maiden's lap so that hunters might kill it--which medieval monks interpreted as an allegory of Christ allowing himself to enter the womb of the virgin Mary so that he might later be sacrificed.

So I'm curious to see if there is documented writings from the Church (I assume this refers to the Catholic Church, or possibly Orthodox or the Church of England, based on the time period) discussing this. Is there history to back up these claims?

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All sign point to negatory, but I'll bet theyve got a no-follow link on the secret archives. "Your search - site:vatican.va unicorn - did not match any documents." –  Peter Turner Dec 27 '12 at 12:17
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Yes, this is one of many allegorical meanings attributed to the unicorn. Sometimes it seems that just about every possible meaning is attached to every possible creature, in the medieval mind. The unicorn's main associations are:

  • power, as with any horned creature.
  • purity: the horn was believed to have the power to magically purify water, counteract poison, and cure diseases.
  • divine intervention, as the horn suggests divine power reaching, penetrating or transforming the mundane horse - resembling a ray of light striking the horse's forehead.

Much of this comes from classical sources, such as the Natural History of Pliny, which were familiar to Christians. Additionally, there are possible unicorn-references in the Bible which can be made to fit with these classical ideas. Saint Basil the Great makes this connection, for example in Homilies on the Psalms 13.5 (commenting on Psalm 92:10):

On the whole, since it is possible to find the word 'horn' used by Scripture in many places instead of 'glory', as the saying 'He will exalt the horn of his people' (Ps 148:14) and 'His horn shall be exalted in glory' (Ps 112:9), or also, since the 'horn' is frequently used instead of 'power', as the saying 'My protector and the horn of my salvation', Christ is the power of God; therefore, he is called the Unicorn on the ground that he has one horn, that is, one common power with the Father.

Other writers to link Christ to the unicorn include Tertullian (Adversus Marcionem 3.18, Adversus Judaeos) and Ambrose. The specific interpretation involving Mary's virginity and the conception of Jesus comes about a bit later, influenced by the Physiologus that you mention, an allegorical bestiary written at some point between the second and fourth centuries, and containing the legend of how the fierce and wild unicorn can be tamed only by a virgin (chapter 36). This, and subsequent bestiaries, developed a more elaborate version of the imagery. By the fifteenth century it could include Gabriel as a hunter who blows his horn to drive the unicorn into an enclosed garden (hortus conclusus) representing Mary's virgin womb. This is a merging of two separate artistic traditions - the unicorn hunt and the secret garden.

The dense web of symbolism is rather difficult to unpick. Because these traditions are essentially mystical, there are many things simultaneously represented or suggested. And so the purifying nature of the unicorn horn may be connected to Mary's virginity, Christ's purity, his purifying of the world, and even the transformative consecration of the Eucharist. The hunted unicorn may sometimes stand for Christ's death at the hands of his persecutors (Das Buch der Natur, Konrad von Megenberg, 14th century; Bestiaire Divine, Guillaume le Clerc, c.1210-1211). Or it may refer to (secular) courtly love as the powerful knight-unicorn chooses to submit to a virtuous and virginal lady.

This extravagance did not last, however. It was a source of mounting embarrassment that Christ was being represented by a creature whose existence was doubtful, and of course all this sort of imagery was unacceptable to the Reformation leaders. Within Catholicism, the last session of the Council of Trent (1563) passed a decree against superstitious or unseemly images, also ensuring that bishops would have the authority to suppress anything that was confusing, unusual, or tending to excite lascivious thoughts. This was backed up by detailed expert guidance in the following years, such as the De picturis et imaginibus sacris of Molanus (1570). He allows the hortus conclusus (but without a unicorn) for Mary, as well as other scripturally-supported imagery, such as the lily among the thistles or the city of God, but generally rejects more fanciful allegories and non-Biblical legends. And so unicorn-imagery gradually died out.

References:

  • The Unicorn Tapestries, Adolph S. Cavallo. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998.
  • The Unicorn, Lise Gotfredsen. Abbeville Press, 1999.
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The Greek-speaking (or bilingual) monk Nilus of Calabria stated that "the Christian monk is a Unicorn" - he did NOT say "like a U." -, an "autonomous being, not dependent on Patriarchs or Emperors". This, in the 10th cent. AD (in Migne "Patrologia Graeca" 120; E. ANITCHKOF (Anitchkof's name has no standard spelling) "Joachim de Flore et les milieux courtois", page 58-9. It should be noted that south Italian Christianity was by that time a syncretic religion with elements borrowed from tarantism, i.e. the "spider cult and the therapeutic tarantella dance" (see E. de Martino "Terra del rimorso"), which later came to influence even the baroque theory of music. Now, the south of France had its own share of tarantism and it seems that a version of this "arachne" complex was the monster "Tarascurus of Tarasconus", the TARASQUE, which was tamed by saint Martha, according to legend. Only, the Tarasque monster was also described as a Unicorn.

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That's interesting to know, but I'm not sure it answers the question. It might not hurt to check the FAQ or the tour page. –  David Stratton Mar 6 '13 at 12:26
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