Last week I was skimming through a book on Gothic art and architecture and I came across a beautiful 13th-century illumination depicting a unicorn killed by an armed soldier. Later I discovered that this particular illumination comes from the Royal 12 F. xiii manuscript, currently a part of the British Library collection. The manuscript is a bestiary once belonging to the Benedictine cathedral priory of St Andrew in Rochester, and its illuminations were performed by a peripatetic lay professional.
Bestiaries were, as the name suggests, books about the animals of the world, some of which were real, some of which were not and others which were inaccurate depictions of actual creatures. To the Medieval mind they were all part of Creation, and they could all be used for didactic purposes since by their behaviour they provided mankind examples or counterexamples of proper Christian living. Several animals were also used as metaphor for God the Father, Christ the Son or any of the virtues and vices. Christ was called "the spiritual unicorn" according to the bestiary of the MS Bodley 764, drawing on passages from Song of Songs and Psalm 92, to mention just a few.
The unicorn could also be called rhinoceros or monoceros. It was believed to be too swift for any hunter to catch, but if it were to encounter a virgin it would fall asleep in its lap and could be caught there. This is exactly what happens in the Rochester bestiary.
Mesmerised by the simple yet very beautiful illumination I started imagining how the artwork had come about, conjuring up its genesis in a scriptorium under the aegis of the senior clergy, carried out by a man - whom I at that time wrongly imagined to be a monk - rather wishing to be a part of the somewhere he was creating than the stone walled world he actually did inhabit. The result was the poem below, and the illumination is taken from the British Library website.
A Dream of Vaults and Vellum
After an illumination from MS Royal 12 F XIII f.10 v (13th century)
The artist, having made a unicorn
With features reminiscent of his own,
Smiles as he finds himself in dreams forlorn,
His head a crown, the maiden's lap his throne.
In dreams forlorn he makes these walls of stone
A forest in a distant Anywhere,
Removed from disapproving eyes. Alone
He wanders with that maiden fair.
Still lost in dreams a knight approaches near,
His tonsured head hid' underneath the hood
Of chain mail armour. Thrusting forth his spear
He wakes the dreamer and uproots the wood.
The unicorn, now dying, is confined
To vellum and a dreamer's pensive mind.
- March 20-28 2012