Peace at the edge of passion. A moment of rest, preceding attack, death and butchery.
In this strange painting by Raphael (1505 – 06), a small unicorn rests comfortably on the lap of a young woman. The woman wears a ruby pendant, one pearl hanging, symbolizing her feminine charity and purity. Her face, though, tells another story.
Notice her cheeks, flush as some inner excitement seems to trouble her, those lips seem nervously clasped, and those eyes. Most troublesome are those eyes.
She looks to her left — away from the odd creature cradled in her arms, away from her painter and, by extension, away from us. But at what? Those are not happy eyes. She’s not pleased by what or whomever she sees. The eyes of love? No. Of sadness? Not quite. With relief I can say I’ve not seen such a look in person, but I know what it is — excitement mixed with fear, lust mixed with guilt, this virginal young woman is looking directly at a killer, and she partakes in his crime.
Let’s step back nearly two thousand years before the great Raphael created “Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn,” whose composition was largely influenced by Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa.” In 4th century BC, the Greek doctor Ctesias, while traveling through Persia, heard tales from Indian travelers of powerful creatures as large as horses with white bodies, red heads, dark blue eyes and bearing a single horn on the forehead, about a foot-and-a-half long, of multiple colors. This animal was so swift and strong that no creature could overtake it. In truth, it was probably an Indian rhinoceros, but in literature and myth Ctesias was the first to describe what we now call a unicorn.
As the rough river of history coursed and crashed through the centuries, belief in the unicorn carried on, changing century after century, until by the 16th century it was a central figure in Christian belief and iconography. Tradition held that the unicorn, a powerful beast with a horn possessing insuperable force, would approach no one but a girl of virginal purity. And so to hunt a unicorn, such a girl would be placed in a forest clearing as a lure. When the unicorn came to her, he would rest in her lap, then the girl would make a sign to the hunters hiding out of sight so they could make their attack.
“Whoever has caught the savage unicorn if not thyself?” asked Heinrich Seuse, the 14th century Mystic, in a meditation to the Virgin Mary.
Though the story is horrific — a solitary creature of the wild seeks sanctuary with a woman thought to represent charity and purity, who then, like a femme fatale, gives him up to be killed — it’s actually an allegory for the Incarnation of Christ in the Virgin Mary’s womb. The horn of the unicorn is Archangel Gabriel’s trumpet, the phallic Horn of Fertility. It represent male virility, the power to create life, perhaps the greatest of all powers.
In this fascinating image, then, the unicorn, cradled like a child but awaiting its slaughter, is a curious amalgam of figures representing the entire lifespan of Christ: he’s the angel who announces Mary’s impregnation; the father that impregnates her; the baby Jesus in his mother’s arms; and the adult Christ betrayed and sent to execution.
Tradition tells us this is a “wedding portrait,” merely an image symbolizing the bride’s chastity. How quaint. I might agree, had Raphael not depicted a scene of such vibrating unease, with both the woman and unicorn looking away with trepidation from our gaze, nor had he placed the woman in a dress with thick crimson velvet sleeves, blood-like and hardly the thing for an innocent young bride to wear. Something sinister comes their way, and they both see it.
The unicorn, mouth slightly agape, eyes slowly opening, has just awoken from peaceful slumber and spots trouble. The woman has Bette Davis eyes — I refer to the Bette Davis of 1942’s “In This Our Life,” where she plays a wretched woman who steals her wife’s husband, drives him to suicide, then drunkenly runs over a little girl and blames it on a poor black man before finally crashing and dying in a high-speed police chase. “Who, me?” she seems to ask innocently, cheeks flashing an embarrassed glow. And this is the woman who gave birth to Christianity?
If I interpret the painting as a dark exegesis of the Christian story, verging on blasphemy with the suggestion that Mary brought her child both to birth and burial, I wonder if it was also the case 500 years ago, when the work was heavily repainted.
A cloak was added to the woman’s shoulders, and the unicorn was painted over with a spiked breaking wheel, the torture device by which Saint Catherine was executed. Were this painting just a portrait to celebrate the wedding of a chaste, wealthy young woman, why was it painted over and turned into a conventional image of Saint Catherine?
I am hoping the questions and ambiguities of this remarkable painting will be addressed in the forthcoming book, “Sublime Beauty: Raphael’s ‘Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn,'” by Esther Bell, Linda Wolk-Simon and Mary Shay-Millea, which will be published in conjunction with the presentation of the masterpiece at the Legion of Honor from January 9th to May 15th, 2016 (the exhibit will premiere at the Cincinnati Art Museum on October 3, 2015.) It was only in the early 1930s that the overpainting was removed from the work and it was revealed as it is today, so while other masterpieces of the Renaissance have had hundreds of years of study, less has been said of this, and I think much is still open for explanation.
Wedding portrait? A blasphemy? Raphael’s “Mona Lisa”? In “Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn” we see what happens when the ambiguities of image making meet the complexities of religious thought, creating a work of art that changes yet endures through the ages.