Unicorn in Captivity – Liana Cohen ’20


I first saw the Unicorn Tapestries when I was about ten. My fifth-grade class took a field trip to the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park in New York, a hidden, castle-like museum which displays medieval art. Our tour guide led us through the maze of corridors before depositing us in the Unicorn Tapestries Room. With unusual solemnity, we dispersed to study the walls. The space was quiet but for the occasional whisper and the sound of raindrops pelting the windows. I began at the first tapestry, The Start of the Hunt, and continued with The Unicorn is Found, The Unicorn Leaps out of the Stream, the Unicorn at Bay, a fragmented version of a lost tapestry from the collection, in which a maiden seduces the unicorn so the hunters could capture it (which I found wildly inappropriate), The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle, and finally, The Unicorn in Captivity. As the story unfolded, I was awestruck by the unicorn’s beauty, furious with the hunters for attacking him, scandalized by the maiden’s deceit, crestfallen at the unicorn’s demise, and finally left confused by the seventh tapestry, which depicts the unicorn alive once more but trapped inside a small, circular fence. I didn’t understand why the unicorn had been brought back to life but was even more perplexed by the unicorn’s expression. I’d expected to see anger or bitterness in his face, and instead I saw an unexpected tranquility, a kind of placid and even content resignation that seemed wildly at odds with the collar around his neck and the red marks that resembled wounds on his body. I was unsettled, but also fascinated. I looked for answers in the unicorn’s wise eyes, his regal position, and his strange smile. Why did he seem happy if he was a prisoner? Didn’t he want to be free?

The Unicorn Tapestries haunted me long after my first visit to the Cloisters. I made a habit of returning to the museum on quiet, rainy days when I had nothing to do and studying the Tapestries once more. Initially, I still felt my old ten-year-old frustration. The question of the unicorn’s expression remained, and I could not find an explanation to satisfy myself. The unicorn seemed so very trapped—in the enclosure, in the painting, even in the museum. As I got older, however, my outlook shifted. Gradually, the strangeness of the unicorn’s serenity became a source of magic rather than annoyance. Like the unicorn, I grew content with my confinement; the question prevailed like a fence around me, but the absence of a clear answer became the very thing that made the tapestry beautiful.

Even now, I sometimes long to access that sense of magic again.  Since I am no longer living in New York City, I go to the Princeton Art Museum on campus instead. There in the atmosphere that feels almost reverent, I can once again revel in the often “answerlessness” state of art. Of course, there is an inclination to intellectualize, to seek hidden meanings in the strokes of the artist’s brush and the curves of a sculpture. But what I’ve learned from the Unicorn Tapestries is that art doesn’t always seek to answer questions, but rather to pose them. There’s an enchanting quality in the feeling of the unknown—the art becomes whatever the viewer wants or needs it to be. In the sacred space of the museum, the art, much like the unicorn, comes alive in happy captivity.