A unicorn for Christmas

December 11, 2011

It is a truth universally acknowledged that girls love unicorns.* So if you still haven’t found the perfect Christmas present for your daughter or your little niece yet, why not choose a pet unicorn? Pet unicorns are cute and cuddly and just about the size of a cat or a little doggie:

The Lady and the Unicorn, wall painting, c. 1465, Old Rectory, Ostermiething, Austria

The only problem is that, like their horse-sized relatives, pet unicorns are probably extinct. They were last sighted in a wall painting dating to c. 1465 (pictured above). A reported sighting in a 1506 painting by Raphael…

Raphael, Young Woman with Unicorn, 1506, Galleria Borghese, Rome (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

 … turned out to be a fake upon closer observation: As technical analysis has shown, the lady in the painting was originally holding a plain old lap-dog which was overpainted to look like a unicorn only at some later date.

So maybe a pet unicorn isn’t a gift option after all… But I guess that’s probably for the best anyway, because we all know what happens to pets given away as Christmas presents: Most of them end up in an animal shelter by mid-January. And wouldn’t it be heartbreaking to see all those shelters crammed with cute little unicorns? But then, the same is true for cats and dogs, rabbits, hamsters and whatnot…

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* That’s ‘universally acknowledged’ as in: ‘I snatched that up somewhere, and someone on the internet says so, too’.

Tyrol Castle

August 26, 2011

Both our last two posts already featured pictures of Tyrol Castle, the ancestral seat of the Counts of Tyrol. In these photos [here and here, to be precise], you may already have admired the castle’s high rising keep with its pointed roof, and the battlements and parapets that surround it. Like most castle architecture that looks medieval, all of this was of course only built in the 19th and early 20th century. The only part of the castle which has more or less retained its medieval appearance is this:

This is the castle’s main residential area, the hall or, in German, palas. Of course, this area has undergone some later alterations and restorations, too, but its overall structure still presents itself in pretty much the same way as it probably would have in the High Middle Ages: In the photo, you can still make out a line of round arched Romanesque windows dating to the 13th century, and the protuberant apse of the castle’s two-storey chapel. The chapel’s upper part, too, was built in the 13th century while its lower parts are even older, dating mostly to the 12th century.

The chapel’s most prominent feature is its richly sculpted portal which is generally dated to ca. 1140 (though some authors have proposed later dates ranging from 1170 to 1250). Among rich carved ornaments, the portal’s relief decoration shows all kinds of animals and beasts, biblical and mythological scenes, among them…

… a centaur, Adam and Eve being tempted by the snake, and King David rescuing a lamb from a lion (or, perhaps, Samson killing the lion?). Even though scholars have spent a lot of time and ink writing about these sculptures, it’s still not quite clear what all this is actually about. If I remember correctly, there seems to be a consensus, though, that one way or another they address the temptations man has to face and overcome during his earthly existence…

Once you enter the chapel, you suddenly find yourself in a wholly different world or, at least, in a different time:

While there are still some Romanesque carvings on the chancel arch, the overall impression is dominated by the chapel’s 14th century furnishings and decorations. Perhaps the most impressive feature is the enormous Crucifix, flanked by Mary and St. John, carved out of wood in ca. 1330/40. Around the same time, the chapel’s walls were painted with a series of murals, most of them showing the figures of saints:

With their bright, albeit faded, colours these wall paintings stand as witnesses of the life and times of a once splendid and vibrant court – which, ultimately, turned out to be rather short-lived: Merely three decades after the paintings were made, the Counts of Tyrol had died out in the male line, and both their country and their castle passed under Habsburg rule.