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J Am Acad Psychoanal. 1988 Jan;16(1):83-106.

The medieval unicorn: historical and iconographic applications of psychoanalysis.

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Department of Psychiatry, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, New York, New York 10028.


One of the most popular subjects of European art in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance was the legend of the unicorn, whereby the mythical beast, otherwise uncapturable, was lured into the lap of a beautiful virgin--an allegory of Christ's Incarnation. The curiously double nature of the virgin in this tale, her purity versus her duplicity, seems unquestionably related to the infantile split mother, as elucidated by Klein--a connection explored in an earlier paper. Yet the split virgin is also clearly related to the Catharist heresy, which overtook Europe in the twelfth century and which held, in defiance of Christian orthodoxy, that the cosmos was divided between the force of good and the force of evil. (The legend may also have connections with troubadour poetry, in which the woman is all-powerful, all pure and all-denying.) Catharism was brutally suppressed by the Church in the early thirteenth century, and it is precisely at that time that the unicorn's "virgin capture" begins to pervade the visual arts. It thus appears that these artistic representations took the place of Catharism as a sublimated expression of the unconsciously surviving split mother. Such a connection would confirm Klein's observation that splitting is never entirely outgrown by the psyche. Klein's point is also confirmed by the Church's encouragement of Mariolatry--in which the godhead is divided between the powerful Father and the merciful Virgin Mary--at the same time that Catharism was being wiped out. Beneath the overt Oedipal meaning of Mariolatry, one sees the Church providing an orthodox outlet for the pre-Oedipal need to split the object.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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