A ‘Pugnae Ferarum’ Tapestry depicting legends of the Karkadann, Flemish, probably Oudena

A ‘Pugnae Ferarum’ Tapestry depicting legends of the Karkadann

A ‘Pugnae Ferarum’ Tapestry depicting legends of the Karkadann

Wool and silk, 5 warp threads / cm
Flemish, probably Oudenaarde or Enghien,
c. 1575 –1600


338 cm; 11 ft. 1 in.
521 cm; 17 ft. 1 in.


Private collection, Belgium

Related literature

H. Goebel, Wandteppiche I: Die Niederlände (Klinkhardt & Biermann Verlag, Leipzig, 1923)
R. Ettinghausen, Studies in Muslim Iconography I: The Unicorn (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 1950)
G. de Tervarent, Attributs et symboles dans l'art profane: 1450-1600 (Droz, Genève, 1959)
M. Roethlisberger, ‘La Tenture de la Licorne dans la Collection Borromée’ in Oud Holland, Vol. 82, Pt. 3 (1967), pp. 85, 107-108, 115
J. Szablowski (ed.), De Vlaamse wandtapijten van de Wawelburcht te Krakau (Mercatorfonds, Antwerpen, 1972), pp. 191-286
M. Ferrero-Viale, ‘Quelques nouvelles données sur les tapisseries de l'Isola Bella’ in Bulletin van de Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Vol. 45 (1973), pp. 77-142
P. Junquera de Vega, C. Díaz Gallegos, Catálogo de Tapices del Patrimonio Nacional, Vol. II, Siglo XVII (Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid, 1986)
J. J. M. Timmers, Christelijke symboliek en iconografie (Houten, De Hann, 1987)
J. Boccara, Ames de Laine et de Soie (Monelle Hayot, Saint-Just-en-Chaussée, 1988)
I. van Tichelen, Vijf eeuwen Vlaamse wandtapijtkunst (Taichung, Taipei, Mechelen, 1989), p. 36
I. de Meûter, M. Vanwelden, et al., Tapisseries d'Audenarde du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle (Éditions Lannoo, Tielt, 1999), pp. 140-141

This superb panoramic ‘Pugnae Ferarum’ (‘Combat of the Wild Animals’) tapestry, inspired by the 16th century Southern Netherlandish painted landscapes of Gillis I of Coninckxloo and Hans Vredeman de Vries, integrates harmoniously a wide variety of both fantastic and real animals. Cloven-hooved rhinoceros, unicorn and camelopard (as detailed below, all variations of the mythology of the karkadann), clawed-feet elephant, playful horses, dogs, beavers, deer, elk and parrots interact in an exotic display against a backdrop of towns, villages, hunters, lakes, streams, hills and woodland. A hunting party passes through wooded terrain chasing quarry into the lake, fantastical creatures filling the foreground frolicking in the foliage. The genre was very popular during the 16th century and illustrates the contemporary fascination with the animal kingdom.

The entirely intact borders are decorated with festoons of flowers and fruits intertwined with wrought ironwork. Allegorical and mythological figures are depicted throughout. The personification of Hope, holding the anchor, fills the upper corners. King David, playing the harp, can be seen in the middle of the side borders.

The complex composition and wide variety of densely placed animals is indicative of the superior quality of this hanging. Highly decorative, the tapestry corresponds, both iconographically and stylistically, with the celebrated 44 16th century Brussels Verdue panels found in the Wawel Castle of Krakow designed by Pieter Coecke van Aelst of Antwerp and with the Verdure with Wild Animals in the Borromeo collection on Isola Bella in Lago Maggiore in Northern Italy attributed to Willem Tons of Brussels and believed to date from around 1565. The tapestries in the Borromeo collection convey a Messianic symbolism with an underlying theme of the Triumph of Christianity and Redemption of Man. They depict the Fall of Mankind at the Creation and Man’s salvation through the Passion of Christ.

The present fascinating tapestry incorporates both Christian and Islamic medieval bestiaries. The work is a magnificent postlapsarian allegory illustrating various narratives and iconography of the ‘karkadann’, the mythical creature whose identity fuses traditions of the rhinoceros and the unicorn. Legends of the karkadann (‘the lord of the desert’) are detailed most exhaustively in Ettinghausen, Studies in Muslim Iconography I: The Unicorn, which explores a range of stories and images seen in our tapestry and examined below. How these sources may have combined historically to shape the creature’s imagery in this work is also discussed.

The Persian term ‘karkadann’ denotes both the unicorn and the rhinoceros, which explains why the thirteenth century bestiaire of Pierre de Beauvais announces, ‘Un bieste est qui est apellee en grieu monocheros, cest en latin unicorne’ (Malines translation) and why these creatures share the same lore and iconography.

The first variation of the karkadann’s mythology depicted in our tapestry is the fight between the rhinoceros and the elephant, seen bottom left. The legend of the karkadann’s hostility to the elephant is examined at length by Ettinghausen (op. cit., pp. 26-34), who cites several authorities with regards to its ferocity, notably Al-Jāhiz (Basra 781 – 869 CE), who in the Kitāb al-Hayawān (The Book of Animals) declares that, ‘They believe that the karkadann often gores the elephant and lifts it up by its horn’, and al-Qazwīnī (1203 – 1283), who says that ‘when the karkadann sees an elephant, he approaches it from behind, strikes its belly with its horn, stands on his hind legs and lifts the elephant until it is impaled on its horn’. This explains why Firdausi (940 Tus, Khorasan-1020) uses the term ‘elephant vanquisher’ for the animal. These accounts elaborate on Pliny’s basic statement of the enmity between the two animals and feed the imagery we see, for instance, in two very similar contemporary images of a unicorn pursuing an elephant, one from Plantagenet London, one from Mamluk Syria. Variations of the theme replace the unicorn with a rhinoceros: for instance, in a Safavid illustration to the ʿAjāʾib al-makhlūqāt (The Wonders of Creation) by Zakariyāʾal-Qazwīnī (d. 1283) and in prints by Antonio Tempesta (Florence 1555 – 1630 Rome) and Henrik Hondius I (Duffel, Flanders 1573 – c. 1649).

The second variation of the theme in the present tapestry occurs with the ‘camelopard’, or giraffe, seen drinking on the upper bank, whose appearance also reflects accounts of the karkadann. The proportions, markings, form of the head and horns are similar to the mythical creature seen, for instance, in the late fourteenth century Iraqi ‘Sarre manuscript’, and the spotted karkaddan with horns to forehead and nose in a seventeenth century al-Qazwīnī manuscript illustration, ‘The lure of the ring-dove’ from Iran now in the Princeton University Library.

The third variation appears in the more familiar image of the unicorn seen on the lower bank in the tapestry, more like the creature seen in Shāh-nāmah illustrations of Bahram Gur killing the karg / unicorn, examples being found in the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto (Acc. No. AKM00054) and in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

The earliest account of the karkadann / unicorn is representative of patterns of occidental and oriental exchange in respect of this creature, being found in the Indica of Ctesias, a Greek physician at the court of Darius II (423 – 404 BCE). The dissemination of such myths then followed with the cultivation of bestiaries across the antique and medieval world. In the second century we see the Alexandrian Physiologus (The Naturalist) translated into Ethiopic, Syriac, Armenian and Latin. In the High Middle Ages there is Il Tessoretto by Dante’s tutor, Brunetto Latini, who was influenced by Alfonso X’s Escuela de Traductores de Toledo. We know that the Alphosine court, visited by Brunetto, was a model of such dialogue, with its school of Islamic, Jewish and Christian scholars who produced the first translation of such Arabic animal tales as Kalīlah wa Dimnah into Romance languages. To consider a later period, in the seventeenth century we witness similar traffic in the dissemination of English miniatures at the Jahangiri Moghul court by the English ambassador Sir Thomas Roe (1581 – 1644) and shortly afterwards in Rembrandt’s collection of Moghul painters and his two dozen copies of Moghul works, executed between 1654 – 1660.

Beyond the richness of the karkadann’s iconography in our tapestry, we see other interesting scriptural symbolism. The beavers and their ‘kit’, or young, that emerge from the river at the base of the tapestry suggest a moral contrast to the warfare of the animals above them, following the myth of their self-castration when pursued by hunters, also described by Pierre de Beauvais (‘Tout ansi cil qui vuet garder les commandements dieu at vivre nettement doit tranchier ses genitaires, cest tous les visces et tous les mauvais fais ieter el visaige del veneor, cest del dyable qui tous iours le cache… Ensi resamblerons nous le caster qui oste de sor luy ses genitaires, cest que nous arons oste tous les visces de sor nous …’). This allusion to virtue might also extend to the solitary unicorn to the right, in view of another reading of the animal remarked by the Picard:

‘Elle a une corne enmy son chief et est si cruels que nuls ne le puet prendre se par ceste maniere non qui nous iert dit: Li veneor amainent une meschine viergene la ou elle convierse et lasiellent la seant en une chaiere seule et bois. Si tost comme lunicorne voit la viergene elle sen dort en son geron. Et ensifaitement est prise des veneors et menee ens roiauls palais. Tout ansi nostre sires ihuscrist espiritels unicorne descendy en la viergene et par la char qu’il viesti pour nous fu pris des iuis et menes devant pylate et presentes a herode et puis crucifijes en la sainte crois. Com cil qui devant ert o son pere nient veables a nous, dont il meismes dit en la psalme: Ma corne iert essauchie sicomme li unicorne. Ce quil dit icy que ly unicorne a une corne el chief senefie ce que li sauviers dit: Jou et mes peres sommes tout un. Li chief de crist si est dieus. Ce que le bieste est cruels cest que poestes ne dominations ne enfers ne peut entendre la poissanche de dieu. Cou quil dit ci que lunicorne est petite, cest a entendre quil sumilia pour nous par lincaration dont il meismes dit: Aprendes de moy que ie sui souef et hum(b)les de cuer.’

This is, of course, the interpretation of the beast found most famously in the Unicorn Tapestries (1495 – 1505) in the Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose language is found at least as far back as the eleventh century. The ‘harīsh’, according to Arab tradition, is a unicorn that may only be caught by an unusual trick: according to Abū Hayyān al-Tawhīdī (nr Baghdad 923-1023 Shiraz), ‘It has in the middle of its head a straight horn with which it strikes all animals. Nothing can subdue it. It is necessary to use a stratagem for seizing it, namely to expose to its view a young virgin or young girl. When it jumps into her arms, it sucks her breast, though there is no milk in them, with such gusto that it is overpowered by intoxication like the intoxication from wine. While it is in this state the hunter comes up and ties it up firmly …’. Ahmad Asadi Tusi (Tus-1072 Tabriz) speaks the same way of the rhinoceros / karkadann. This is the myth that is quoted by European illuminators, who identify the virgin and unicorn with the Virgin and Christ, showing the last translation of karkadann, this time into a divine symbol.

In extremely fine overall condition with a well preserved colour palette, the tapestry has been cleaned by the Royal Manufacturers of Tapestry De Wit, Mechelen.

SOLD: Private collection, London