Animals in Medieval & Gothic Art

A look into the religious use of animals to parallel the Christian beliefs of the medieval and Gothic eras.

The Unicorn in Captivity “The Unicorn Tapestries” are a collection of tapestries from the Middle Ages that are considered among the most beautiful and complex works of art to come from the time period. Through the ages, these tapestries somehow withstood the test of time along with a lot of the turmoil that caused many art pieces of the time period to be lost or destroyed. They were made of fine wool and silk with silver and gilded threads and depict scenes associated with a hunt for the elusive and magical unicorn. “The Unicorn in Captivity”, although part of the seven piece collection of tapestries, was most likely created as a single print rather than part of a series. The unicorn here represents the beloved and since it is held in captivity it is believed that it represents the beloved tamed. This captivity, according to the tapestry, appears to be willing as there are many ways for the unicorn to escape such as simply leaping over the low fence. However, the unicorn is at peace in confinement and chooses to stay. There is bountiful fruit (pomegranates are the fruit used here) within the trees dripping their juices onto the unicorn and flowers are blooming all around the unicorn and the fenced in area. These flowers which include orchids, thistle, and bistort as well as the fruits all represent fertility as they were commonly used during this time period to promote fertility and marriage. Hiding in the violets in the lower right if you look carefully enough you will find a frog. Frogs were also used to represent fertility as their loud mating calls were what Middle Age artists would be referencing here. Overall, this beautiful piece of artwork signifies the importance of marriage and contentment within marriage while promoting the fertility and well-being of the marriage.
Triumph of the Unicorn “The Triumph of the Unicorn” is a piece of art work that was created by artist Jean Duvet. Duvet would often densely engrave his artwork with varying degrees of ink tones, but these tones in “Triumph of the Unicorn” actually indicate that he was either not finished with the piece or that he had worked over an extremely long period of time to do so. Duvet often used unicorns within his artwork to represent purity and would use this to show his Christian beliefs and theology. During the Middle Ages, Christianity had begun to spread widely and it was considered to be the triumphant religion of the time period by many. This was also the worldview that Duvet would show in his artwork. In this piece, Duvet is depicting the triumph of Christianity during the time period he lived in. The unicorn in this piece is being ushered in triumphantly and with jubilation. Jupiter here represents God the Father and He is ushering in the unicorn which represents Jesus into paradise with the crown of heaven. This is significant because of the Christian theology of the return of Christ and Christ’s triumphant victory over the forces that opposed Him and the peace that He will bring when He does return. Another important aspect of the symbolism here is that it could also be linked to the resurrection of Christ and His triumph over sin and the grave. It is also important to note that Duvet chose to use Jupiter to represent God the Father. In the Middle Ages and even in other time periods, artists would often use the gods of the time in their art to be able to better connect their beliefs with the local cultures. For example, during the Roman Empire, Christians would use Greek and Roman gods in their sculptures and paintings to represent their beliefs by altering the images of the gods or of the heroes in the stories to be able to convey their beliefs to the culture of the time. A prime example of this would have to be Paul’s usage of the “unknown god” during his sermon. The same applies to Duvet’s artwork.
The Unicorn Purifies the Water with His Horn “The Unicorn Purifies the Water with His Horn” is another piece by Jean Duvet that features the unicorn and the purity that the unicorn represents. In the Christological interpretation of the unicorn tale, the mythological unicorn purifies the poisoned water (which most likely represents sin in the Christian perspective) by dipping his horn into the water which is very clearly shown here in Duvet’s artwork. In medieval times, writers often said that the representation of the unicorn purifying the water was equivalent to the Bible’s record of Moses cleaning the waters of Marah, the priest consecrating the Eucharist at mass, and Christ’s own purification of the world after the corruption of Adam’s sin. It could also be said that the parallels of this piece to Christianity can be seen in the fact that there are many thirsty animals standing around the waters as the unicorn purifies them which resembles the Bible’s account of Jesus meeting the woman at the well (as well as Jesus being the living water for all) where He tells the woman she will thirst no more if she drinks from the living water that he provides. In fact, a 14th century Greek bestiary recorded how the unicorn would always make a sign of the cross over the water before proceeding to dip its horn into the waters to purify them. Duvet would often place these parallels to his Christian beliefs in his artwork and would often use the unicorn to represent Christ and animals in this case to represent the people that Christ came to save from the poisons of sin. This is a truly interesting piece that uses multiple parallels in order to get its point across: Christ is Lord overall and has purified the water for us to drink from (He defeated death and sin through the crucifixion and the resurrection and will return to be Lord of all someday).
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