The Oak King, the Holly King, and the Unicorn: The Myths and Symbolism of the Unicorn Tapestries

John Williamson, Author HarperCollins Publishers $22.95 (260p) ISBN 978-0-06-015530-8
Visitors to the Cloisters museum in New York City are familiar with the Unicorn Tapestries. This set of seven medieval textiles depicts the hunting and slaying of a unicorn and the mythic animal's resurrection in an enclosed garden. Williamson, who designed the Cloisters medieval gardens, has written an invaluable study that tells as much about the origins of Christianity as it does about these magnificent tapestries. The unicorn was a symbol of the resurrected Christ to early Christians, yet it derived this meaning from its associations with pre-Christian gods, myths and icons. In various Indo-European and pagan religions that were precursors of Christianity, a ""dying god'' or vegetation deity sacrificed himself for the benefit of humankind; such fertility figures included the Green Knight, Wild Man, Holly King and Oak King, all linked to the unicorn myth. By unraveling the rich plant and animal symbolism of the tapestries, Williamson, a Connecticut botanist/landscape architect, shows how the cycle of the four seasons, celebrated by the nature religions, was the framework Christianity used to gain acceptance. Illustrations. (March 26)
Reviewed on: 01/01/1986
Release date: 01/01/1986
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