Of unicorns and melusins
How fantasy figures and hybrid creatures conquered arts and crafts
An elaborately decorated Renaissance tankard not only enriches the table of its owner, it also increases the drinking pleasure – especially if its elaborate design fires the imagination and the drinker enjoys its aesthetic appearance. But why were hybrid creatures such as unicorns and melusins chosen as motifs for goldsmith objects, drinking vessels and coats of arms? Where does the popularity of these exotic fantasy figures come from and how do they get into our culture?
Hans Pawell II, Renaissance tankard with lid, silver, gilded, late 16th century
(Collection Helga Matzke)
While today we have banished the unicorn to the realm of fantasy and trivialized it as a white horse with horn and rainbow mane that adorned the room of little princesses, it already occupied an important place in the world of legends in ancient India and China. In China, the unicorn is said to have been invented as early as 2697 BC. Chr., but it was not white there, but shimmered in rainbow colors. Even if it goes back to a much older oral tradition, the Indian heroic epic Mahabharata was written from 400 BC. recorded. In it, the “hermit unicorn”, a hybrid creature consisting of a human and a gazelle with a horn, is outwitted by the advice of wise men: a king’s daughter beguiles the unicorn and brings it to her father’s palace to use its miraculous powers to end the drought in the land remove. Starting from a classic myth of fertility, the topic migrated into Greek and Roman natural history. The Greek polymath Aristotle, the Greek historian Strabo and the Roman poet Horace dealt with the unicorn, as did the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder. The ancient “nature descriptions” of the unicorn are mostly based on oral tradition from travelers who may have been influenced by Indian rhinos or Tibetan antelopes as well as Syrian-Babylonian and Indian art objects. In this respect, the descriptions of the unicorn vary greatly. Most Greek philosophers referred to the descriptions of the Greek physician Ctesias of Cnidus (404-359 BC), who describes it as a donkey-like, white horse with a dark red head, blue eyes, and multicolored horn. In Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79 AD) the unicorn is a horse with a stag’s head, elephant’s feet, a boar’s tail and a long black horn.
The Christian connection to the originally ancient Indian theme came about through a translation error: the Hebrew word Re’em, a wild buffalo, became the word “monókeros” in the Greek translation, the Septuagint, in the Latin Vulgate, the word “unicornis”, “monoceros” and “rhinoceros”, which Luther finally rendered with the word unicorn. Through its legitimacy in the Bible, the unicorn received a permanent place in the Christian-influenced medieval imagery.
The best-known tapestry series depicting the unicorn is impressively presented in a specially created room in the Musée du Cluny.
.La Dame à la Licorne, between 1484 and 1500, the sense of sight, Musée de Cluny, musée national du moyen âge, Paris, © Public Domain
In addition to ancient sources, the descriptions of the adventurous “unicorn hunt” in the Physiologus of the 2nd century AD were particularly formative for the imagery of the Middle Ages: The unicorn is described here as a small animal with a horn on its forehead, “like a little goat”, the whole peaceful and gentle, but too strong to be hunted by a hunter. The only way to hunt it down is to put a “pure virgin” in its path. Magically attracted, it would “jump into her lap” and let him stroke it. The girl could then lead the animal to the king’s palace. She could also capture it and chain it to a tree by its horn, whereupon it would throw off its precious horn to get free again. The magical power of the unicorn against snake venom and other poisons is particularly emphasized. Accordingly, fossil finds and narwhal teeth, which were declared as unicorns and were sometimes elaborately framed, became coveted collectors’ items for European princes and art galleries.
Das Einhorn in Gefangenschaft / The Unicorn in Captivity, (from the Unicorn tapestries), The Cloisters, Museum and Gardens, New York City, © Public Domain
A very colorful enamel medallion from Paris around 1320/1330, which is now in the Bavarian National Museum in Munich, shows the unicorn hunt in all its brutality: A helpless-looking, blue unicorn with a white face and horn, which confidently alights at the feet of a maiden to “rub against your knees” as described in the Physiologus, is cunningly defeated by a hunter who, hidden from a treetop, stabs it with a spear. The unicorn’s blood clearly emerges from a shoulder wound. The purpose for the unicorn hunt is made clear by the meaningfully raised silver plate – the unicorn sacrifices itself in the Christian sense to protect against poison in food.
This depiction is reminiscent not only of the Physiologus’ accounts of the unicorn, but also of the words of the courtly minnesingers who took up the subject in the 12th century. Thus writes Tedbald IV, Count of Champagne (1201-1253):
“I’m like a unicorn
Confused in contemplation
the maiden it charms
so full of joy of devotion,
that it sinks in a faint on her breast
and is killed by treachery.
Also killed me in the same way
Love and my lady, yes, that’s true:
You have my heart I can’t take back.”
Most of the fully sculpted or engraved representations of unicorns in the art of goldsmithing are less drastic than the medallion in the Bavarian National Museum. To be mentioned here is, for example, the turbo snail goblet by Friedrich Hillebrandt, Nuremberg 1595, crowned by seahorses and Neptune, in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nuremberg, on the flat wall of which a deer hunt, a stag and a unicorn can be seen.
In addition to the ancient natural history descriptions and the characterization and history of unicorn hunting in the Physiologus, the animal descriptions by Albertus Magnus (around 1200-1280) and Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) also had a major influence on the representations of the unicorn. Both emphasize the animal’s cloven hoof, which resembles a horse with goat-like feet and a twisted horn. In the late Gothic and Renaissance period, the beauty, elegance and invincible power of the unicorn is particularly emphasized in art objects.
Rechte Museum im Prediger Schwäbisch Gmünd
A figure clock with a unicorn (bronze and brass, gilded, on an ebony base) from the Museum im Prediger in Schwäbisch Gmünd around 1600 emphasizes the twisted long horn, the goat-like feet and the sublime elegance of the animal.
The Green Vault in Dresden has a jumping unicorn made of brass on a wooden base by Hans Reisinger, Augsburg around 1589, whose powerful leap into the air seems almost impossible.
Next to this are two elaborately crafted sea unicorns in the Green Vault Dresden. A drinking vessel made of gilded silver by Elias Geyer, Leipzig around 1600, which seems to grow out of the turbo snail with its smoothly polished upper body and is controlled by Neptune,
as well as a sea unicorn with two satyrs on a gilded silver box from Frankfurt am Main, artistically decorated with baroque pearls, enamel, rubies and diamonds, probably made before 1725.
In the Baroque period, people began to doubt the real existence of the unicorn, and in the “Picture Book for Children” by Friedrich Justin Bertuch (1747-1822), the unicorn finally moved into the category of “fabulous animals” (…) “the our natural history does not know”.
As early as the 13th and 14th centuries, when the unicorn was just as present in love literature as it was in the Christian interpretation of the unicorn as a symbol of Christ, who only found rest in the lap of the pure Virgin Mary, the unicorn appeared more and more as a heraldic animal . In addition to its exotic appearance, it was considered wild, indomitable, courageous and invincible, it could only be tamed by a ruse. The abrasion of his horn should – according to legend – heal diseases or protect against poisoning. These special characteristics exerted a great fascination on the people of the Middle Ages and the early modern period: The choice of the unicorn as a heraldic animal for cities, aristocracy and even royal houses is easy to understand. The unicorn is not only found on the coats of arms of Schwäbisch Gmünd and Giengen an der Brenz, it is part of the coat of arms of the Margraves of Este, the artist Hans Baldung Grien, the poet Friedrich von Schiller and the shield holder of the old royal coat of arms of Scotland, since 1603 also shield bearer of the royal English coat of arms.
Rechte Museum im Prediger Schwäbisch Gmünd
The artist Hans Baldung Grien, who comes from Schwäbisch Gmünd, lifts the twisted horn in his coat of arms through the hand coloring in the woodcut Schwäbisch Gmünd around 1510. particularly prominent. The goat-like feet as well as the elegance of the jumping animal can also be seen on the sheet in the Prediger Museum in Schwäbisch Gmuend To find tankards from Hans Pawell II.
Overall, the motif of the unicorn was particularly popular due to its exotic shape and history in the bestiaries of the Middle Ages, medieval book illumination, on Gothic tapestries, on majolica and goldsmith work of the Gothic and Renaissance periods. It was preferably found on art objects that were able to show off the beauty and fascination of the subject with great attention to detail in terms of shape, color and material.
In addition to unicorns, mermaids and Melusines played an important role in the legends of the Middle Ages. Even if the oldest written records of Melusine date back to the 12th century, the motif of the cunning, supernatural hybrid creatures can be found in ancient Greece as well as in Celtic sagas and Japanese myths about Princess Toyotama, all of which depict the transformation of a beautiful young woman into a woman have a snake, fish or dragon being in common.
While the sirens in Homer’s Odyssey lure passing sailors with their beguiling song in order to drive them to their deaths, Melusine lures with her beauty and her mysterious story. She promises wealth and fertility, but must regularly transform into her true form for a certain period of time – an unearthly hybrid being, in whose state she is not to be viewed. While the sirens and mermaids are naturally portrayed with the tail of a fish, Melusines in literature usually have the tail of a snake.
Hans Pawell II, Renaissance tankard with lid, silver, gilded, late 16th century
This is how Gervasius of Tilbury describes the story of Raimundus, Lord of Rousset, near Aix-en-Provence in the “Otia imperialia”, a medieval world history from around 1211/14. He meets a very beautiful woman on a richly decorated horse on the Lar river, whom he tries to win over with words. She agrees to a marriage to free herself from her curse and promises him highest earthly happiness as long as he doesn’t see her naked. Should he fail to comply with this condition, he would lose his luck again. Raimundus enters into a “martheque” with Melusine: he marries the beautiful lady and becomes famous for his courage, bravery, generosity and education as well as the beauty of his children. When he breaks the required condition in a moment of weakness and surprises the beautiful Melusine while she is bathing after the hunt, he loses his wife, his luck and his reputation: after seeing his beautiful wife’s body naked, she turns into a snake, submerges in the water of the pool and disappears.
The same theme is described in Jean d’ Arra’s novel “Roman de Mélusine, 1393”: Here Melusine is the ancestress of the Lusignan family. She is the daughter of the Scottish king and a fairy and only on Saturdays transforms into an unearthly hybrid with the torso of a beautiful woman and the abdomen of a snake. She is cursed to find a husband who will not invade her privacy during the bath or childbirth and who will not reveal the secret of her transformation. Melusine falls in love with Raimondin, marries him and has ten sons. For many years, Raimondin keeps the required terms, but he ultimately breaks both promises, leading to a family tragedy.
Jean d´Arras, Le livre de Mélusine, 1478; © Public Domain
All of these legends have one thing in common: the beautiful Melusine bestows happiness, prestige, beauty and fertility. However, if she is recognized in her true form, this breach of trust has serious consequences. Here, the beautiful Melusine embodies two different extremes: partly she is described as a demonic seductress, partly as the embodiment of a virtuous and fertile mother figure based on the Christian model.
In fact, the Raimond-Melusinen story is reminiscent of the biblical story of “Susanna in the bath”, whose privacy must not be disturbed when bathing either.
Coat of arms of the Nuremberg patrician family Rieter von Kornburg and Kalbensteinberg and Bocksberg 1605; © public domain
It is difficult to say when the beautiful Melusine, depicted with the two-tailed snake or fish tail, appeared in goldsmith art. It has had a permanent place in architectural sculpture since the 13th century. It can be found on capitals, near archways and as facade decorations, such as on the Lieblerhaus from 1628 in Tauberbischofsheim. The Melusine is particularly popular in Franconia: According to folk tales, the cursed, beautiful Melusine was regularly seen there at mills and streams. The Nuremberg patrician Rieter family chose her as their coat of arms as early as the 13th century. The Nuremberg mastersinger Hans Sachs also took up the theme in his drama “Die Melusina” from 1556.
Lorenz Ott, Deckelhumpen, Silber, vergoldet, Nürnberg ca 1590
(Sammlung Helga Matzke)
In addition to the Renaissance tankard by Hans Pawell II and Lorenz Ott shown above, there are other tankards in private collections and museums depicting the beautiful Melusine or mermaid. Apparently the Melusine, on the tankards used for drinking beer, was particularly popular. The Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg also owns a small gilded silver tankard by Veit Koch from Breslau, around 1610/1615 with a two-tailed Melusine as a thumb rest and a Hermen handle, both of which were cast.
Like the unicorn, the beautiful Melusine exerted a special fascination on people from the late Middle Ages due to her mysterious story. She is usually depicted in the forbidden, tense moment in which her true form becomes visible: as a fantastic hybrid creature with a snake tail or a divided scaly fish tail and the torso of a beautiful young woman.
Caius Plinius Secundus: Natural History. Translated and explained by Dr. Ph. H. Külb, city librarian of Mainz, vol. 7, Stuttgart 1843, p. 942; [digitized] (unicorn)
Physiologus, natural history in early Christian interpretation, translated from the Greek and ed. by Ursula Treu, Hanau 1998, especially no. 22, pp. 42-45 (unicorn)
Bächtold-Stäubli, Hanns: Hand dictionary of German superstitions, Berlin 2000, Vol. 2, columns 708-712 (unicorn)
Drostel, Janina: Unicorn/dragon basilisk: fabulous mythical creatures, Ostfildern 2007, p. 33-49 (unicorn)
Erlande-Brandenburg, Alain (ed.): La Dame à la Licorne, The Lady with the Unicorn, Paris 1989 (Unicorn)
Hörisch, Jochen: Pharmakon and Idol. The unicorn as an animal promising salvation and healing: In: Animali, animals and mythical creatures from antiquity to modern times, ed. from the Swiss National Museum, cat. exhibition, Geneva 2012, p.229-241.(unicorn)
Le Goff, Jacques: Knights, unicorns, troubadours, heroes and wonders of the Middle Ages, Munich 2005, pp. 130-143 (unicorn); pp. 144-153 (Melusine)
Slenczka, Eberhard: “Fabulous animals” in illustrated prints and manuscripts, In: From the view of the animals, cultural-historical walks in the Germanic National Museum, ed. by Tobias Springer and Christine Kupper, Nuremberg 2009, pp. 82-95, esp. pp. 85-89. (Unicorn)
Steinkamper, Claudia: Melusine – from the snake woman to “Beauté with the fishtail”: History of a literary appropriation, Göttingen 2007; [digitized] (Melusine)
Volborth, Carl-Alexander: Mythical creatures of heraldry in families and city coats of arms, Stuttgart 1996, pp. 56-61. (Unicorn)
Zerling, Clemens: Lexicon of animal symbolism, mythology, religion, psychology, Klein Jasedow 2012. P. 74-78. (Unicorn)
Links to the goldsmith objects mentioned in the Green Vault in Dresden, the Bavarian National Museum in Munich, the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg, the Museum in the Prediger in Schwäbisch Gmünd
About the exhibition: “The last Unicorn” in Schwäbisch Gmünd:
(On the exhibition: The last unicorn. The unicorn as reflected in pop culture. May 31, 2020 – January 10, 2021, exhibition at the Museum im Prediger in Schwäbisch Gmünd in cooperation with Martina Tauber Fine Art, Munich)
Enamel medallion Paris
Turbo snail cup Friedrich Hillebrandt
Figure clock with unicorn, Augsburg 1600:
Figure clock with unicorn, Augsburg 1600 and coat of arms of Hans Baldung Grien:
Unicorn by Hans Reisinger
Drinking vessel by Elias Geyer
Sea Unicorn with Sartyrn
To the beautiful Melusine on coat of arms
On Jean d’Arra’s “Roman de Melusine”
Wroclaw silver tankard
Image sources from Wikipedia:
http://www.tchevalier.com/unicorn/tapestries/sight.html (La Dame a la Licorne, Paris Musée de Cluny
https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/6QHwPO4q4grNtA (Unicorn Hunt, New York Cloisters)
300px-Rümlang_Scheiler99ps.jpg (300×445) (wikimedia.org) (Coat of arms of the Rümelang family of knights)
https://mythicalcreatures.edwardworthlibrary.ie/melusine/ (Jean d`Arras, Le livre de Mélusine 1478)
https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rieter_Siebmacher205_-_Nürnberg.jpg (coat of arms of the Rieter family)
Author: Daniela, Caroline Herrmann, München