Iconography of the Unicorn from India to the Italian Middle Ages

Iconography of the Unicorn from India to the Italian Middle Ages

Tagliatesta, Francesca

East and West, Vol. 57, Nos. 1-4, December (2007)


The present study reports on a historical-cultural analysis and field reconnaissanceaimed at examining an iconography depicted in mosaic paving and figurative friezes.The iconographic cycle of the unicorn in the various Italian mediaeval artistic contexts summarizes a comprehensive network of historical links that, from India to the Mediterranean, attests the vitality of an imaginary figure spread by iconographic tradition.The Byzantine unicorn in Italian churches is the result of strong cross-cultural pollination and represents the penultimate phase of an iconography first developedin the Indus Valley and that completed its cycle in the most sophisticated Renaissance portrayals.

From the protohistoric sites of Harappa, Mohenjodaro and Lothal come seals bearing impressed unicorn figures. The much debated question of whether these were bicorn or unicorn animals now seems to have been resolved. Numerous researchers now agree that bicorn animals, represented in profile, clearly display the two horns. The unicorn figures must therefore be interpreted for what they actually are. The animal depicted is generally a male, the body of whichresembles that of an African antelope, the oryx, and sometimes that of an ox. The long pointed ears are those of an antelope; the horn often displays stripes and more occasionally is smooth. The eye, the protrusion of which is underlinedby a pronounced eyelid, in some cases resembles that of an ox, and in others a camel.

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