Intrigued by a unicorn picture, we saw Rafael’s Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn at San Francisco’s Palace of Legion of Honor. The unicorn is a romantic symbol from the Middle Ages. Leonardo da Vinci wrote:
The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.
Rafael painted this picture at the same time that da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, and the museum argues that Rafael copied da Vinci. Both were in Florence at the time, and Rafael’s lady has the same pose and gaze as the Mona Lisa.
The museum summarized the meaning of the unicorn:
The unicorn is a mythical creature whose symbolism of purity and chastity dates back to the Physiologus, a collection of moralizing Christian best tales written between the third and fourth centuries. …
The Physiologus describes the unicorn as “a small animal like the kid” who is so wild and strong it cannot be captured by hunters. However, it has one weakness, a fondness for female virgins. Whenever a unicorn sees a maiden, it will fall asleep in her hap, which allows hunters to capture or kill it. …
In this way, the animal in Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn acts as both an endorsement of the sitter’s chaste character and as a warning to any suitor: The young woman is pure enough to have attracted the unicorn into her lap. But her fingers wrapped around its front legs also suggest that she has captured the beast, signifying her powers of seduction.
After seeing The Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters in New York City, we were familiar with the legend of the unicorn. Being able to photograph the Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn was an unexpected treat, because the painting belongs to Rome’s Borghese Gallery, and they don’t allow photos.