DÜRER, Albrecht
(b. 1471, Nürnberg, d. 1528, Nürnberg)

Abduction of Proserpine on a Unicorn

Etching, 308 x 213 mm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Mrs. Heaton, the first English biographer of Albrecht Dürer, describes this etching as "a wild, weird conception that produces a most uncomfortable, shuddering impression on the beholder." By eliminating accessory figures and by arranging the terrain so as to suggest a leap into the void, by diffusing the scenery with a lurid, flickering light, and by transforming the horse of the preparatory drawing into a fabulous unicorn evocative of the ideas of night, death and destruction, Dürer invested a violent but perfectly natural scene with an infernal character unparalleled in representations of the subject except for Rembrandt's early picture in Berlin.

The head of the unicorn was sketched separately by Dürer. Pluto here appears as the leader of the wild hunt, riding a unicorn. Wild men, according to ancient belief, were the only creatures capable of overcoming the unicorn's ferocity. The idea probably derives from an illustration in the Nuremberg Chronicle (folio CLXXXIX) relating to an event during the reign of Emperor Henry III (1017-1056). According to report a wicked English sorceress, the Berkeley Witch, was hauled off by the devil on a hideous horse. Her fearful and terrifying cry was heard four miles around.