Dictionary of Art and Artists


that Changed the World


  Lascaux Caves Manesse illuminated Massys Callot Friedrich Picasso
  Tutankhamen's tomb Lorenzetti Grunewald Rembrandt Constable Matisse
  Europa and Minotaur Karlstein Castle Baldung Claude Lorrain Delacroix Marc
  Banquet Tomb Limbourg brothers Altdorfer Velazquez Turner Kandinsky
  Pompeii Van Eyck Cranach Vermeer Ingres Monet
  Birth of Christianity Della Francesca Holbein Rigaud Manet Chirico
  Hagia Sophia Uccello Titian Watteau Burne-Jones Modigliani
  Book of Kells Mantegna Bruegel Canaletto Seurat Chagall
  St Benedict Botticelli Vicentino Boucher Van Gogh Kahlo
  Bayeux Tapestry Anonymous Arcimboldo Fragonard Toulouse-Lautrec Dali
  Donizo manuscript Durer El Greco Gainsborough Munch Ernst
  Liber Scivias Bosch Theodore de Bry John Trumbull Cezanne Hopper
  Carmina Burana Da Vinci Caravaggio David Gauguin Bacon
  Falcon Book Michelangelo Rubens Gros Degas Warhol
  Giotto Raphael Brouwer Goya Klimt  

From Lascaux to Warhol

Supreme art is a traditional statement of certain heroic and religious truth,
passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius,
but never abandoned.

William Butler Yeats




Myths and Medicine

How to catch a unicorn



It has a single horn in the middle of its forehead. But how can it be caught? One places an elegantly clad virgin in its path. And then, the beast leaps into the virgin's lap and follows her.

Physiologus, The Unicom, third century AD



"Only that which has never existed anywhere
can remain eternally young."
Drawing by Jean Cocteau, 1953, for the premiere of the ballet "The Lady and the Unicorn"


The fifth century ВС Greek historian and personal physician to Persian Kings, Cresias is said to have discovered all the wonders of his time. And so, he was the first to tell of the amazing beast called the unicorn: it could be found in Asia and was a white, donkey-like horse with a red head, blue eyes and a large horn. According to Cresias, the horn, if scraped down and ground to a powder, was an antidote to poison and relieved muscle cramps. Although malicious gossip had it that Ctesias was a drinker and a pathological liar, his tale of the unicorn lived on. Physiologus, an anonymous writer who invested all sorts of animals with Christian symbolism, took up the tale, associating the unicorn with Christ. Conceived by a virgin, the Son of God had become a "horn of healing" as an antidote to all the world's ills. In the Middle Ages, when poison had become a popular instrument to settle political disputes, many rulers were anxious to protect themselves from assassination through the horn of the unicorn. By the sixteenth century it was considered more than an antidote to poison and an aphrodisiac; it was also "serviceable and wholesome as a remedy for epilepsy, pestilential fever, rabies and parasitic worms".

But how is one to catch a unicorn? Physiologus himself had remarked that the marvellous beast, which loved solitude and shunned humans, was "possessed of high courage". He stated further: "The hunter cannot approach it because it is so powerful." The famous legend which told of placing a virgin in the path of a unicorn was still known. And although artists had been dealing with the subject matter for centuries, few success stories had been recorded. All that was known was that a unicorn could not be deceived by an "unvirtuous" virgin. If the unicorn were tricked in such a way, instead of placing its head in her lap it would ram its horn into her side.

Capturing a unicorn was not a simple undertaking. Considering this, the number of cornua unicornuum (unicorn horns) in the treasuries and curiosity cabinets of Renaissance princes is astonishing. Upon closer inspection, these "horns", which can be up to three metres long, transpire to be the tusks of male narwhals. It is for this reason that the narwhal is also known as the "unicorn whale".


The Lady and the Unicorn
Late 15th or early 16th century
A mon seul desir, sixth scene from a six-part tapestry woven in Brussels Wool
Musee National de L'Hotel de Cluny, Paris


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