The Language of Art – Peacocks, Doves, Owls and the Legendary Phoenix – What Do These Birds Symbolise?

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The Language of Art - Ba - Bird with Human Head

Ba – a bird with human head. Image courtesy of FinnBjo.

The language of art is both complex and fascinating. Every type of art contains features, such as animals, objects or birds, most of which have multiple symbolic meanings.

For example, throughout history, birds both real and imagined, have captivated humans. They are a familiar part of everyday life but their ability to sing and fly sets them apart from all other creatures.

Dynasties and empires have adopted birds as their symbols. Birds appear in myths and legends, and in many religions they represent the human soul. Birds feature in every form of art, from early Palaeolithic cave paintings to the modern-day – birds are everywhere and they all have symbolic meaning.

The Romans believed the flight and sounds of birds provided clues to the future, or indicated the will of the gods, and in some cultures, birds are the intermediaries between human and heavenly worlds.

In early Egyptian culture the ba represents the spirit of a deceased person. The ba appears as a bird, often a hawk or falcon with a human head, flitting back and forth between this world and the next. According to Egyptian Books of the Dead – a series of funerary texts – a golden ba must be placed on the chest of the mummy to ensure the ba returns to the body.

The variety of birds in art is endless. From peacocks to doves, from the owl to the legendary phoenix, the symbolism of birds in art is fascinating.

The Language of Art - Return of the Dove to the Ark, Millais

John Everett Millais, The Return of the Dove to the Ark, 1851. Image courtesy of Ashmolean Musuem

Dove – Symbol of Peace, Purity, Hope, Tenderness, and the Holy Spirit

For the Chinese, doves suggest long life and marital fidelity.

In Japan a dove with a sword is emblematic of peace.

In the Bible, the dove is a divine messenger and symbol of peace.

According to Jack Tresidder, (p.67 Dictionary of Symbols), “…the dove’s universal importance as a peace symbol owes less to its nature (often quarrelsome) than to its iconic beauty and the influence of biblical references.

The Return of the Dove to the Ark (1851) by Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896) is an imagined scene based on a passage in the Old Testament.

Noah released a dove to search for dry land. On its return, bearing the olive branch, Noah’s wives tended to it.

Millais shows two young women wearing clerical-style clothes, perhaps a reference to the painting’s message of hope. The women lovingly hold the dove between them.

According to Catherine Bugler, writing in The Bird in Art (p.86), Millais originally intended to include Noah, surrounded by birds and animals. Millais also intended to create a frame of doves carrying olive branches, but his plan was never completed.

The Language of Art - The Annunication with St Emidius, Carlo Crivelli

The Annunciation with St. Emidius (1486). Painting by Carlo Crivelli

In Christian art, a white dove symbolises the Holy Spirit. Doves appear in depictions of the Annunciation such as The Annunciation with St. Emidius (1486) by Carlo Crivelli (c. 1430/35-1494).

Mary is in her chamber, bottom right, and we see the dove of the Holy Spirit descending through the clouds towards her. Other birds hover near a dovecote on the house opposite. A peacock, Christian symbol of immortality and the Resurrection, sits on a balcony directly above Mary’s chamber. Close to the peacock another dove represents purity and a caged goldfinch prefigures Christ’s Passion.

The Peacock – One Hundred Eyes of Argus and Symbol of Pride and Vanity

One bird appearing frequently throughout history is the peacock. Its symbolic meanings include solar glory, royalty, incorruptibility, resurrection, vanity and pride.

According to the ancient traditions of India, and later Iran, the wheel-like radiance of the peacock’s tail display represents the ‘all-seeing’ sun and the never-ending cycles of the universe.

In Iranian symbolism, snakes were the enemies of the sun. Peacocks would kill them and use their saliva to create the shiny, brilliantly-coloured ‘eyes’ of the tail feathers. Iranians added the belief that the peacock’s flesh was incorruptible.

As the peacock grows bright new tail feathers every year, it has also come to represent Christ’s resurrection. If a peacock is drinking from a vase, this symbolises a Christian drinking the waters of eternal life. However, in line with Christian doctrines of humility, the peacock can also symbolise the sins of pride, luxury and vanity. The eyes also have special meaning for Christians, representing the all-seeing eye of God. The bird is also emblematic of the stars and universe.

In Hinduism, the peacock is linked to several gods including Kama, god of love, Sarasvati, god of knowledge, poetry and music, and Skanda, the war god. Skanda could change poison into the elixir of eternal life. The bird is also linked to Lakshmi. Worshipped daily in Hindu homes, Lakshmi represents good luck, compassion, patience, benevolence and kindness.

In Buddhism, the bird represents the god of compassion, Avalokiteshvara.

The Language of Art, The Peacock Complaining to Juno - Gustave Moreau

The Peacock Complaining to Juno, 1881. Painting by Gustave Moreau

In Greek and Roman mythology, the peacock is the bird of Hera and Juno respectively. According to classical tradition, Hera gave it the one hundred eyes of the slain Argus Panoptes, whose eyes represent heaven and the ‘eyes’ of the stars.

The Peacock Complaining to Juno (1881), by Gustave Moreau (1826-1898), shows the peacock complaining to Juno that its voice is too weak. He wishes his song was as tuneful as the nightingale’s. Juno rebukes the bird, reminding it that every bird has its own special qualities, the peacock’s being its brilliantly-coloured tail feathers. If he didn’t like his colourful tail feathers she would simply remove them!

Moreau emphasises the creature’s beauty by showing the tail fully open. Juno, in pure white, makes a stark contrast to the peacock’s colourful display, diverting the viewer’s eyes directly to the peacock.

The Owl – Symbolic of Evil or Emblematic of Wisdom, Moderation and Calmness

The predatory owl, symbolic of darkness and evil, hunts for food at night, and sleeps during the day.

The Language of Art - Malle Babbe - Frans Hals

Malle Babbe, c.1633. Painting by Frans Hals

In ancient cultures, such as China, Egypt, India, Central and North America, the owl is widely linked to death and the occult. Owls appear as guardians of darkness and as guides to the afterlife.

Owls also appear in Christian images symbolising the Devil or witchcraft.

In Dutch paintings of the Golden Age, the owl symbolises witchcraft, licentiousness, stupidity, and drunkenness. Malle Babbe (ca.1633), by Frans Hals (1581/85-1666), shows a woman with an owl on her shoulder.

In Dutch, Malle means ‘mad’, and the woman’s peculiar grin is suggestive of mental illness. She holds a giant pewter tankard, indicating intoxication.

In Hals’s time there as a real ‘Malle Babbe’ living in Haarlem in an institution for the mentally ill.

The Language of Art - Simon Vouet - Anne of Austria as Minerva

Allegorical Portrait of Anne of Austria as Minerva, ca 1640. Painting by Simon Vouet

Owls also represent wisdom, moderation and calmness. Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom (Athena: Greek), is often depicted accompanied by an owl.

The painting Allegorical Portrait of Anne of Austria As Minerva (ca. 1640), by Simon Vouet (1590-1649), shows Minerva seated with an owl by her feet.

Vouet shows her wearing body armour, refering to her earliest form as a goddess of war. She fought only for justice, spreading the virtues of civilization.

In this painting Vouet is implying that Anne has all of Minerva’s finest qualities, especially her good judgement.

The Mythical Phoenix – Symbol of Fire and Regeneration

The phoenix, the mythical bird that renews itself in fire, is perhaps the most well-known of all rebirth and regeneration symbols.

The legendary creature had its origins in the city of Heliopolis, ancient centre of Egyptian sun worship. According to legend, the bird lived for five hundred years. It built its own funeral pyre of aromatic branches, and after burning up in its own heat, the phoenix emerged from its own ashes.

In medieval Christian art the phoenix often symbolises Christ’s resurrection and the indomitable spirit of mankind.

The Language of Art - Phoenix - legendary bird

Bilderbuch für Kinder, 1806. Painting by Friedrich Justin Bertuch

Images of the bird vary greatly because so many artists really had no idea of what the phoenix actually looked like. In 1806, Friedrich Justin Bertuch (1790-1830) drew this illustration of the phoenix in Bilderbuch fur Kinder.

The Language of Art – Creatures that Sing and Fly

Birds in art are not limited just to doves, peacocks, owls and the imaginary phoenix. Birds of every kind appear in art through the centuries and have attracted a wealth of complex symbolic associations.

Their ability to sing and fly sets them apart from all other creatures. They embody our hopes and fears and are a familiar part of everyday life. Images of birds represent the divine spirit descending to Earth, and the human soul rising to Paradise.

The all-seeing peacock, the tender dove, the wise owl, or the imaginary phoenix – whatever their many meanings, there is no doubt man will always be fascinated by creatures that sing and fly.

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