The Secret of “Lady with a Unicorn” By Raphael

Left: The lady with the unicorn. Raphael, ca. 1506 On the right: X-ray picture of the masterpise.

In the beginning of the XVI century Rafael Santi created the picture “The Lady with the Unicorn”, which was included in the “golden fund” of the painting art of the High Renaissance. The author could not imagine that in a few centuries his canvas would be changed beyond recognition, and art critics would argue whose authorship it belongs to.

The Secret of "Lady with a Unicorn" By Raphael
The lady with the unicorn. Raphael, ca. 1506

“Lady with a Unicorn” has a fascinating history. Art critics agree that the young Raphael wrote this picture under the impression of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” that he saw. The artist painted a girl in the same perspective as the great master, and used the same techniques. One of the sketches of Raphael, miraculously preserved in the Louvre, indirectly confirms this conjecture.

The Secret of "Lady with a Unicorn" By Raphael
Drawing from the Louvre Museum.
The Secret of "Lady with a Unicorn" By Raphael
St. Catherine of Alexandria. Painting Raphael before restoration.

Rafael wrote “The Lady with the Unicorn” in 1506, and at the beginning of the twentieth century she was known as St. Catherine of Alexandria. Researchers argued, whose brush belonged to the picture – Perugino, Ghirlandaio, Granacchi?

Disagreements came to an end after x-ray scanning of the canvas. As it turned out, the picture had several additions. In the XVII century, the girl drew a cloak, chastely covering her shoulders, and in place of the unicorn, an unknown artist depicted the broken martyrdom of St. Catherine and the palm branch of martyrdom.

The Secret of "Lady with a Unicorn" By Raphael
X-ray shot of Raphael’s painting.

Further research uncovered another mystery. It turns out that initially the lady held not a unicorn, but a dog. Some believe that the animal was copied by Raphael himself.

The Secret of "Lady with a Unicorn" By Raphael
Bestiaire d’Amour. Illustration.

In those days, the dog was considered a symbol of fidelity, and her appearance in the picture indicated the imminent marriage. The unicorn personifies purity. According to ancient beliefs, a unicorn can catch only a virgin. So, the author himself changed the symbols, instead of devotion, he focused on chastity.

The Secret of "Lady with a Unicorn" By Raphael
A woman with a unicorn. Fresco Studiolo of Giulia Farnese, Italy.

In 1959, the picture was in terrible condition, and it was decided to restore it. Specialists decided to remove the finished layers. Thus, a cloak and a wheel with a palm branch were removed. Restorers tried to restore the dog, but then abandoned the idea. Too great was the risk of damage to the picture.

During his short life, Rafael created dozens of paintings and frescoes. Only the images of the Virgin Mary were forty-two. Looking at the master’s canvases, one can say only one thing: his Madonna had no shortcomings.


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