The Annunciation with the Unicorn Polyptych is one of the most precious altarpieces to have survived intact in Poland. It is an example of a typical Silesian altarpiece, combining a carved centre shrine and painted side panels. The altarpiece features a unique depiction of the Annunciation, in which Mary is holding a unicorn – a symbol of Christ and of Mary’s virginity. It was believed that the elusive unicorn could only be tamed by a virgin, who lured it with her song and tenderness, to be then captured by a hunter. Here, the role of the hunter is played by the Archangel Gabriel, who is holding a horn. The unicorn is also a metaphor for Christ, whose elusive divine nature was “captured” for humankind by the Virgin Mary. This altarpiece shows Mary surrounded by her symbols from the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary – the “Gate of Heaven,” the “Tower of David,” and the “Burning Bush.” In the shrine next to the figures of Mary and Gabriel are the figures of St Hedwig – the patron saint of Silesia, and St John the Baptist – the patron saint of Wrocław. The reliefs on the wings depict scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Crowning the polyptych is a scene of The Coronation of Mary. The intricately carved tracery canopy which originally covered the altarpiece is not included in the exhibition due to its massive size.
When the first pair of wings was closed, the faithful saw paintings presenting further scenes from Mary’s life. Among these scenes, one of particular interest lies on the reverse panel of the left wing. It depicts a baby Jesus with a walker surrounded by angels.
When fully closed, the altarpiece reveals the Passion cycle based on woodcut prints by Martin Schongauer. With the rise of printmaking in the 15th century, which made it possible to produce multiple copies of a single composition, artistic practise underwent a drastic change. Artists became eager to use woodcuts as templates and, as a consequence, we find Silesian compositions that are nearly identical to ones in, for example, the Netherlands or Spain.