Horn of Salvation and Symbol of Chastity

by Terrence Ehrman, C.S.C., appearing in Volume 37

A unicorn is among the medallions of the sanctuary arch of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Memphis. It is located second from the bottom along the left side of the arch. Photo: Author

A unicorn is among the medallions of the sanctuary arch of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Memphis. It is located second from the bottom along the left side of the arch. Photo: Author

In the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Memphis, Tennessee, each side of the arch of the apse has four circular medallions. Descending on the right side are a lamb, peacock, stag, fish, and a flowering plant. On the left side are a pelican, phoenix, butterfly, another flowering plant—and a unicorn. The flora and fauna symbolize Jesus Christ or some aspect of his redemptive power. The pelican represents “atonement in blood” and the phoenix, “resurrection,” for example.

The unicorn represents “our Lord’s Incarnation and sinless life”—a symbol of Jesus Christ and of purity. How did the unicorn come to be associated with Christ and purity?

The Bull and the Unicorn

Association of Christ and the unicorn derives from an admixture of classical sources that attribute indomitable power, strength, and healing to the unicorn and of biblical references to unicorns whose characters will be interpreted as applying to Christ. The first written account of a unicorn is from an early fourth century BC natural historian, Ctesias, a Greek physician at the Persian court. (Much of the history that follows is taken from Odell Shepard’s The Lore of the Unicorn and Lise Gotfredsen’s The Unicorn.)

He describes, from traveler’s stories, a swift and powerful horse-sized, wild ass-type animal living in “India” that has a single tricolored, eighteen-inch-long horn between its eyes. It has a white body, purple head, and dark blue eyes. To drink from this horn as from a cup protects one from diseases and poisons.

Several centuries later, in the first century AD, Pliny the Elder described the unicorn (monoceros) in his Natural History. Native to India, it has a stag’s head, horse’s body, elephant’s feet, boar’s tail, and a three-foot-long horn. It behaves similarly to the unicorn in Ctesias’s account: it eludes live capture.

Surprisingly, early translations of the Bible also refer to unicorns. The second-century BC Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint, mistranslates the Hebrew word re’em (wild ox) as monoceros. The translator(s) were not familiar with the kind of animal this word indicated, and likely just substituted monoceros for it, given re’em’s similar characteristics to the animal known from classical reports.

In the fourth century, Saint Jerome translates the Hebrew for wild bulls as unicornis. For example, “Save my life from the lion’s mouth, my poor life from the horns of unicorns” (Psalm 22:22). Martin Luther and the King James Bible followed Jerome. Only in the twentieth century did “wild ox” return. (Some scholars suggest a better candidate for re’em would be the aurochs, a wild buffalo extinct since the sixteenth century.)

Jesus the Unicorn

The Church Fathers started to identify Jesus Christ allegorically with the unicorn. The horn was an Old Testament symbol of strength and power, particularly in the psalms (e.g., Psalm 18:3 and 148:18). In the Benedictus of Luke’s Gospel, Zechariah praises God because “He has raised up for us a horn for our salvation” (Luke 1:69). It was translated “He has raised up for us a mighty savior.” Jesus Christ is the horn of salvation.

Tertullian in the early third century interprets “the horns of a wild ox” of Deuteronomy 33:17, a metaphor about the power of the glory of Joseph, to be allegorically about the spiritual power of Christ and his cross. In his Against Marcion, the Carthage theologian identifies the horns as the two axes of the cross.

“In a yardarm, which is part of a cross, the extreme ends are called horns, while the unicorn is the upright middle post,” he writes. “So then by this virtue of the cross, and by being horned after this manner, he is even now winnowing all the nations through faith, lifting them up from earth into heaven, as he will afterwards winnow them by judgment, casting them down from heaven to earth.”

Jesus Christ is the horn, the powerful one, whom no enemy can conquer, the reality to which the creaturely characteristic of the unicorn points. However, this does not adequately explain why the Memphis cathedral medallion associates the unicorn with the Incarnation and sinlessness. The fullness of the symbology requires the introduction of another text, the Physiologus.

This book, the title translated best as “The Natural Historian,” is a third- century Greek text written in Alexandria. It treats of fifty animals, plants, and elements, not only in their natural qualities, but with a Christian moral allegorizing of them.

The sharp-horned unicorn described is fierce and unable to be taken by force, behavior consistent with that described by Ctesias and Pliny. However, it is a small animal, about the size of a kid goat. The goat size explains the Memphis cathedral unicorn’s chin hair.

Additionally, the unicorn is attracted to purity and will approach a virgin, lay its head in her lap and fall asleep as the maiden caresses him. This virgin-unicorn relationship appears to pre-date any Christian influence.

Unicorn and Virgin

An explicit Christological and Mariological interpretation of the unicorn and virgin develops in the Syriac version of the Physiologus (early fourth century). Those hunting the unicorn present a young virgin to it. The fierce beast approaches docilely, suckles from the maiden’s breast, and lays its head in her lap as the girl reaches out and grasps the horn, at which time the hunters capture it.

The Physiologus compares this dynamic of unicorn and virgin to Christ and his virgin Mother. “Likewise the Lord Christ has raised up for us a horn of salvation in the midst of Jerusalem, in the house of God, by the intercession of the Mother of God, a virgin pure, chaste, full of mercy, immaculate, inviolate.” The all-powerful Word of God condescends to be conceived and dwell within the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word who is like us in all things but sin (hence the Memphis identification of the Incarnation and sinlessness), is the unicorn who rests upon/within the lap/womb of the chaste Virgin Mary.

In the early seventh century, the bishop Saint Isidore of Seville wrote a compendium of manifold topics: grammar, law, God, the Church, anthropology, and natural history, among others. Now a Doctor of the Church, he was learned and unsurpassed among his contemporaries.

In the Etymologies he discusses the unicorn, borrowing from the Physiologus: “It has such strength that it can be captured by no hunter’s ability, but, as those who have written about the natures of animals claim, if a virgin girl is set before a unicorn as the beast approaches, she may open her lap and it will lay its head there with all ferocity put aside, and thus lulled and disarmed it may be captured.” (Opening up her lap could be translated as “bares her breast.”)

Isidore’s account, blending the classical and theological, had enormous influence upon future Christian writers, who looked trustingly to him as a learned scholar of the highest quality. He more than any other scholar and cleric houses the unicorn as one animal among many in the menagerie of Christian imagination.

By the fourteenth century, the unicorn hunt theme will be allegorically depicted as the Annunciation with the Virgin Mary in an enclosed garden. Christ the unicorn reaches into her lap, with the Archangel Gabriel blowing a horn and holding the reigns of hunting dogs representing various virtues.

Also, later medieval versions of the Physiologus attribute to the unicorn’s horn the power to purify water contaminated by a serpent’s poison. The unicorn makes the sign of the cross with its horn over the water, immerses the horn in the water, and thus purifies it.

Christ, the sinless one, is the unicorn. He has the power to forgive sin and overcome the works of the evil one. The holiness and sinlessness of Christ are affixed to earlier pagan accounts of the purity of unicorns. Thus, Christ, the pure, is directly connected to the pure Virgin Mary and to all virgins.

Cathedral of Saint Mary

Since apostolic times, women within the Church have dedicated themselves to Christ by a life committed to virginity. From the fourth century onward, women called to such a life entered the Ordo Virginum (Order of Virgins) and were considered brides of Christ. Saints of the Church were grouped according to their manner of life and death: martyrs, apostles, confessors, and virgins. Mary is the Virgin of virgins and is given the title “Queen of Virgins” in the Litany of Loreto.

The stained-glass windows of the Cathedral of Saint Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the diocese of Gaylord, Michigan, illustrate the Litany of Loreto with a window for each title of Mary as queen of angels, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins, and all saints.

The iconography of the window for Mary Queen of Virgins has a crown for royalty above a recumbent unicorn beside a lily.

The unicorn and lily are both images of purity and chastity. In contrast to the active, springing unicorn of the Memphis cathedral, the Queen of Virgins’ unicorn portrays a tamed unicorn tranquil before the pure virgin to whom it was attracted.

The meaning is twofold. First, the unicorn represents the Incarnation, as the Word condescends to be conceived and born of the creature, the Virgin Mary. Christ is the sinless one born of the Virgin Mary whose immaculate conception preserved her from original sin and whose life was holy and free from every stain of sin. Mary is the pre-eminent disciple, a type of the Church. She is the first fruits of a redeemed humanity. Mary is “the Virgo virginum (Virgin of virgins), the unsurpassable prototype of consecrated virginity. Thus, Mary is the mother, sister and teacher of consecrated virgins.”

Second, the unicorn also represents the purity and virginity of those women who have espoused themselves to Christ. Through mythic imagery, the unicorn symbolizes the Christological and ecclesiological meaning of human personhood and sexuality.

Saint Peter’s Basilica

Another image of virgin and unicorn in a church, however, lacks the explicit and immediate Christological, ecclesiological, and Mariological context of the Queen of Virgins’ image. Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome depicts a woman and unicorn high above the nave floor in the spandrel of an arch.

One of the Allegory Statues in the nave of Saint Peter’s depicts a virgin and a unicorn. Photo: Author

One of the Allegory Statues in the nave of Saint Peter’s depicts a virgin and a unicorn. Photo: Author

This is one of sixteen female figures, the Allegory Statues, each about twenty feet in size, adorning the spandrels on both sides of the nave arches. Twelve other such figures are located in the transept arches. The sixteen women and their associated implements or figures are allegorical representations of various virtues: ecclesial authority, divine justice, virginity, obedience, humility, patience, justice, fortitude, charity, faith, innocence, peace, clemency, constancy, mercy, fortitude.

The woman and unicorn in the second arch represent virginity or chastity. Niccolo Menghini carved this sculpture in 1647, along with the neighboring “Obedience” or “Faith” in 1649. His representation of virginity reflects Renaissance characteristics, including partial nudity of the human body, while recapitulating the Physiologus’ virgin-unicorn relationship.

The movement from the late medieval period to the Renaissance witnessed a secularizing of the virgin-unicorn image, whose most influential impetus was Petrarch’s Trionfi in the mid-fourteenth century. Drawing upon ancient Roman triumphal processions of conquering army commanders and emperors, Petrarch’s poem presents the triumphal procession of conquering allegorical figures: love, chastity, death, fame, time, and eternity.

His work ignited the imagination of artists across Europe, who presented chastity’s triumphal procession as a woman seated on a platform drawn by a pair of unicorns. Henceforth, unicorns became a standard allegorical attribute of chastity untethered from any necessary Christological connection.

The placement of the statues in Saint Peter’s Basilica situates the allegorical depiction of virginity within an implicit ecclesiological and even Christological framework. However, the initial straightforward understanding is a theological anthropology of human sexuality and specifically virginity.

The woman’s bare left breast and right breast visible through her gossamer garment bespeaks the Physiologus’ virgin who nurses the unicorn. Her right hand grasping the base of the equine horn is a firmer but parallel touch to that seen in the fifth panel of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry two centuries earlier.

The Taming of Desire

The allegorical sculpture also manifests the Renaissance focus on the beauty of the human body, but a body that should never be separated from the person. The human person, as body and soul united together, is the one who loves and is loved. Only in this personal unity can the person reach what Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est called “authentic grandeur.”

Menghini’s unicorn can symbolize the taming of man’s desire and the purity of his intention regarding a woman. The fierce, untamable beast becomes gentle, a tender man of honor, in the presence of purity. The face of the virgin is tranquil, serene, admiring, and contemplative, manifestations of an undivided heart and joy in personal, bodily being.

The allegory of virginity expresses the essence of chastity. That, Pope Saint John Paul II explains in Love and Responsibility, “consists in quickness to affirm the value of the person in every situation, and in raising to the personal level all reactions to the value of ‘the body and sex.’”

The presence of a mythical animal in Saint Peter’s surprises many when they learn of it. Others think the presence of partially nude figures unfitting. (Five of the sixteen allegorical sculptures are bare-breasted women.) Eighty-four years earlier, the Council of Trent decreed that sacred art must be free of superstition, sensual appeal (lascivia), seductive charm (procaci venustate), and the profane (profanum) and unseemly (inhonestum). Only after the council did a papal commission recommend that pictures in churches (like Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel) be covered if obscene or false.

Only after Michelangelo died the next month did Daniele da Volterra begin to paint over the frontal nudity of figures in that painting. After the 1994 restoration of the Sistine Chapel, albeit with Volterra’s discretions still present, Pope John Paul II preached that the chapel was “the sanctuary of the theology of the human body.”

Trent’s decree on sacred images, however, was not primarily about lascivious art. It was foremost a re-affirmation, in the face of Protestant iconoclasm, of the goodness and legitimacy of images, as taught eight centuries earlier at the Second Council of Nicaea in response to the imperial iconoclasm of the day.

Purity and Knowledge

Two unicorn heads flank the door of an outdoor pulpit on the back side of Dillon Hall, an all-male residence hall at the University of Notre Dame. Above the arch over the door is a plaque of a fruiting tree with the words “Scientia Dei” (knowledge of God).

Outdoor pulpit at the University of Notre Dame. Photo: Author

Outdoor pulpit at the University of Notre Dame. Photo: Author

Originally completely enclosed, the central pulpit wall was removed and steps added decades later. The pulpit was most likely not functional but simply a Gothic motif. The pulpit opens off the hall’s chapel and most immediately beside the confessional. This outdoor pulpit and its fruit tree and unicorns represent the relationship between purity and knowledge. Unicorn purity facilitates the pursuit and obtaining of the knowledge of God.

Detail of the unicorn carving. Photo: Author

Detail of the unicorn carving. Photo: Author

Not only does a Catholic university seek to integrate faith and reason in the one human person, but it seeks to educate the entire human person as a spiritual being. Blessed Basil Moreau, C.S.C., the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, whose members founded the University of Notre Dame, understood this holistic education to be of both mind and heart.

He would have been aware of the connection, disbanded by Enlightenment anthropology, between the intellectual ability to understand reality and one’s moral character. Saint Thomas Aquinas wisely recognized that lust blinds the mind and gluttony dulls the senses. Catholic teachers do not merely slake human thirst for knowledge but seek to enflame hearts with divine love and vision. “[F]or the Spirit teaches not by sharpening curiosity but by inspiring charity,” writes Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in On the Song of Songs. The student is awarded by the Holy Spirit “with the choice repast of knowledge and the seasoning of grace.”


A Catholic vision of education of the human person, created in the image of God, recognizes that education is also liturgical and ascetical. This outdoor pulpit is a stone and brick manifestation of that truth. The knowledge of God requires a pure heart, symbolized by the unicorns.