Young woman seated in a landscape with a unicorn Late 1470s

The style of this drawing, in which a young woman is seen pointing at a placid unicorn that she holds by a leash at her left side, indicates that it was probably produced early in Leonardo’s artistic career, sometime during the late 1470s.

The technique of diagonal parallel hatching is not consistent and the outlines themselves are not entirely confident in their handling in comparison to later pen and ink drawings by the artist. The framing outlines around the composition suggests that while no painting exists of this subject, it seems likely that the artist intended to paint one at some point.

According to medieval folklore, the unicorn was a symbol of sacred and profane chastity. Leonardo’s account of the mythical animal in his fables of animals that he wrote in his notebooks indicates that the symbolic meaning of this drawing is to demonstrate the maiden’s chastity. The maiden was taken as analogous to the Biblical Virgin:

“The unicorn…because of its intemperance, not knowing how to control itself before the delight it feels towards maidens, forgets its ferocity and wildness, and casting aside all fear it will go up to the seated maiden and sleep in her lap, and thus the hunter takes it.”

  • Medium Pen and ink
  • Size 9.4 x 7.4 cm
  • Location Ashmolean Museum

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