The Beauty and the Beast – The Unicorn in the Art of Miniatures

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Fellow book lovers, enjoy this fantastic article from Alumina where you will be given an interesting account on the figure of the unicorn in miniatures.

Border decoration featuring the representation of a unicorn
Border decoration featuring the representation of a unicorn (Book of Hours of the Altarpieces)

For centuries, from the oldest poetic texts of the Far East to Tintin and Harry Potter, the unicorn has been depicted in the mythical, literary and fantastic universe of beings, wandering solitary and elusive in the forest of imaginary ready to be tamed by a young virgin’s purity.

Armed, crowned with a mane and manicured in gold, indomitable and anything but tame despite the golden chains holding back its rampart spirit of independence, the silver unicorn, symbol of Scotland, is perhaps the most enduring, widespread and persistent figurative translation of mythical figures.

 

Check out some of the unicorn miniatures that we have found among Facsimile Finder facsimile editions, make sure to check their picture galleries, too!

Double-page opening from the Liber Bestiarum exhibiting a miniature featuring a unicorn
Double-page opening from the Liber Bestiarum (Ms. Bodley 764) exhibiting a miniature featuring a unicorn
Miniature from Ms. Bodley 764, f. 10v
Miniature from Ms. Bodley 764, f. 10v

Like other hybrid and fantastic creatures – the dragon, the phoenix, the basilisk, the chimera, the siren, the centaur – it has fascinated mythographers, artists and writers of all times and cultures, lending itself, with its agile and sensitive profile, to a series of symbolic interpretations dating back to various traditions of the ancient world, and especially the Middle Ages, when the need to reconcile the global and encyclopaedic vision of the world then known through the dictates of the Holy Scriptures, that found their natural evolution toward a theological, moralizing and ethical-allegorical interpretation.

Unicorn miniature from the Book of Wonders (Ms. Français 2810)
Unicorn miniature from the Book of Wonders (Ms. Français 2810)

Beyond the anecdotal or narrative character value of the fairy-tale or monstrous creature, it was, in the eyes of the Christian, just like other animals inferior to man because it was guided solely by instinct but also, and first and foremost, as a living manifestation of the mystery of God, a mirror of the more subterranean secrets unfathomable to reality and thus, in its radical otherness, an invaluable tool for exposing the most obscure aspects of being and for helping man, in the wake of the divine word spread by the Gospels and the Bible, to move forward on the path of truth and knowledge. This was so because the world – in the words of Ugo di San Vittore in the 12th century – “is like a book written by the finger of God”.

Full-page illustration from Petrarch's Triumphs Trionfi, Ms. 55.K.10c, f. 17v
Full-page illustration from Petrarch’s Triumphs, Ms. 55.K.10c, f. 17v

 

Article written by Gianfranco Malafarina for Alumina – Pagine Miniate.
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