Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
A woman abducted by a man on a unicorn
An engraving showing a woman being abducted by a man on a unicorn.
This disturbing image is difficult to interpret. A drawing by Dürer in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York shows that he made a number of key changes to the image while transferring it to the etching plate. The unicorn was originally a rearing horse, and in the drawing lifeless figures are trampled beneath the horse’s hooves. Neither the drawing nor the print can be firmly tied to a particular myth, although the print is sometimes entitled 'The Abduction of Proserpina' after the story of the abduction of Ceres’s daughter by Pluto. Proserpina, however, is normally shown carried off in Pluto’s chariot or on foot rather than on a unicorn.
This is one of only six etchings known to have been made by Dürer. A new technique in printmaking (although long used to decorate metalwork), etching involved biting lines into an iron plate with acid rather than scraping them with a burin. The earliest surviving print in the technique - by Urs Graf - dates from 1513. Dürer’s brief experimentation with this form of printmaking, between 1515 and 1518, does not appear to have proved particularly satisfying to him, and he soon concentrated on engraving, his preferred method of incising a plate. Such prints as the 'Abduction' may indicate why Dürer abandoned the technique. Although there is a dramatic contrast between light and dark, the plate is essentially difficult to read, with the head of the abductor blending into the rocky prominence behind, and the figure of the naked woman melting into the horse’s flank. Etching, which produces a uniform line, did not allow Dürer to achieve the variety of effect which made his engravings such a technical and critical success.
Catalogue entry adapted from 'The Northern Renaissance. Dürer to Holbein', London 2011