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Hunt of the Unicorn Annunciation

Netherlands, Utrecht
ca. 1500

Gift of the Trustees of the William S. Glazier Collection, 1984

MS G.5
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During the Middle Ages, people believed in unicorns; they are mentioned in the Bible, were discussed by church fathers, and were even seen by travelers. So pervasive was the influence of the medieval hunt that it even invaded Annunciation iconography. Here Gabriel, given the attributes of a hunter, sounds the trumpet, and with the help of two dogs (symbolizing Mercy and Peace) drives the unicorn into the lap of the Virgin. The unicorn is a symbol of the incarnate Redeemer who raised a "horn of salvation" (Psalm 17:3) for the sins of man. The virgin who ensnares him is Mary, his mother, whose virtue he could not resist. The depiction of this allegory, regarded as licentious, was forbidden by the Council of Trent in 1563. This frontispiece to the Hours of the Virgin includes other Marian symbols: the enclosed garden (virginity), Gideon's fleece (a prefiguration of the Annunciation), and the burning bush of Moses and Aaron's flowering rod (both Old Testament events prefiguring the virgin birth, the subject in the initial D on the opposite page).