At first blush, the peacock might seem an unlikely candidate as a sacred symbol in Christianity or any other world religion. After all, its showy tail feathers and mating dance strut inspired the phrase “proud as a peacock” to describe a vain, self-centered, person. Pride, it so happens, is one of the seven deadly sins according to Prudentius who established the seven Christian virtues and their opposing vices in his allegorical poem, the Psychomachia (Battle of Spirits), written around 400 CE. Pride is the antithesis of humility. Yet despite these seemingly negative connotations, the peacock appears as a sacred symbol in Rome’s catacombs, in medieval illuminated manuscripts, in paintings of Jesus’ nativity by Renaissance masters, and in stained glass windows in a Gothic cathedral in France and an art deco church on the shores of Lake Michigan (photo 1). What is the peacock doing there?
In this post, we’ll examine the peacock’s peculiar career as a Christian symbol with visits to two museums in the United States (the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City), Chartres Cathedral in France, Loyola University Chapel in Chicago, and Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.
About the Peacock The peacock, a cousin of the pheasant, is technically a male “peafowl.” The female is a peahen. The iridescent blue peacock with which many people in Europe and North America are familiar, originated in India and Sri Lanka. Two less familiar species come from Java and central Africa. It is not clear when the first peafowl pair arrived in Europe from India. Some say that Alexander the Great first brought peafowl to Greece after his military campaign in Persia, around 330 BCE. The Bible suggests, however, that the birds were known to the Mediterranean world by early in the first Millennium BCE. The Book of Kings, written around 900 BCE, reports that King Solomon’s fleet came from Tarshish in three year cycles “bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.” Peacocks, it appears, were deemed precious by the wisest of ancient Israel’s kings (photo 2).
The peacock enjoys a connection with the divine that spans centuries, predates Christianity, and crosses cultural and religious frontiers. In Hindu tradition, the bird is an emblem of Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom, music, and poetry. In east Asia, the peacock is an attribute of Guanyin whom Taoists regard as the goddess of mercy and compassion. In ancient Greece, the peacock was the emblem of Hera, whom the Romans called Juno.
Resurrection Symbol Hera was the wife and consort of Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods. A Roman sarcophagus at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts features Hera’s peacock (photo 3) and Zeus’ eagle on opposite ends of the elaborately sculpted coffin. The peacock holds a wreath of olive leaves in its beak, signifying peace and victory. The overturned basket at the bird’s feet appears to hold pomegranates, a second attribute of Hera and also a reference to the Greek myth of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, with its theme of regeneration. The pomegranate came to symbolize the earth’s seasonal rebirth through the myth. This along with the fruit’s red color may explain why Christians later appropriated it as a symbol for Jesus’ death and resurrection.
As for the peacock, early Christians took a different approach to the bird than the Hindus and Greeks did. Rather than use it directly as an attribute for an individual–an apostle or gospel writer as they did with John and the eagle–Christians employed the peacock as a symbol for theological concepts, particularly their beliefs about resurrection, immortality, and the nature of God.
As mentioned, the peacock connoted the idea of rebirth among the Greeks and Hellenized Romans well before the first Easter Sunday. Pliny the Elder, a Roman author and naturalist who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, hinted at a reason for this in Natural History, his wide-ranging compilation of information (and speculation) on the habits of creatures of all sorts. He wrote that the “peacock loses its tail every year at the fall of the leaf, and a new one shoots forth in its place at the flower season; between these periods the bird is abashed and moping, and seeks retired spots.” In other words, when spring arrives and the peacock’s tail feathers grow back, the creature is revitalized. Perhaps it was hope for renewal in a world beyond that motivated a wealthy Greek who lived in the fourth century BCE, to place a a delicate, gold funerary crown bearing the images of two peacocks on the head of a departed loved one (photos 4 & 5).
Christians were quick to re-purpose the peacock as a symbol for their own beliefs about rebirth. The bird appears in very early Christian art, notably in a group of frescoes that date to around 240 CE in Rome’s “Catacombs of Priscilla” (photo 6). A blue peacock with a purplish train stands above an Orant fresco in which a female priest lifts her arms in prayer, apparently during a worship service. Here, the peacock’s presence may allude to the anticipated resurrection of those who are buried nearby. A 2013 article in the Daily Mail is informative about the fresco’s recent restoration and ensuing controversy about what appears to be the image of a woman priest [http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2510473/Vatican-unveils-frescoes-Catacombs-Priscilla-paintings-FEMALE-PRIESTS.html].
The peacock’s resurrection connection is even more evident in the art of an anonymous Benedictine monk who worked at the Weingarten Abbey in Germany around the year 1200. Two scenes in the Berthold Sacramentary, an illuminated manuscript now at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, portray legendary events in the life of St. Martin of Tours (photo 7, click to enlarge). The artist used geese and peacocks to tell the “back stories” for the images. On the top half of the left page, St. Martin divides and gives half his cloak to a shivering beggar. Below this famed scene of saintly charity, a second painting shows Martin standing among three lifeless bodies.
The two geese atop the right page remind viewers that Martin was extremely reluctant, despite popular acclaim, to become the bishop of Tours. The story, according to George Ferguson in Signs & Symbols in Christian Art, is that a goose “revealed Martin’s hiding place to the inhabitants of Tours, who had come to call the saint to be their bishop.” The townspeople eventually persuaded Martin to take the post. The peacocks at the bottom of the right page (photo 8) refer to resurrection stories recorded in the Golden Legend where St. Martin, on three separate occasions, raised men from the dead including one who had been hanged! The inscription between the peacocks appears to be a Latinized form of the Greek word that means both “souled” and “alive.”
The link between compassion and human revitalization, evident in these stories about Martin, perhaps motivated an American artist to incorporate a small image of the peacock in the border of a stained glass window honoring the Social Work profession (photos 9 & 10) at Loyola University’s Chapel on Chicago’s lakefront. The window features a large image of St. Vincent Depaul who, like St. Martin, was known for helping the poor.
Immortality Symbol The peacock’s association with rebirth took an expansive turn among certain philosophers in pre-Christian Greece. Members of the Platonic school of thought reportedly believed that the peacock plays a part in the transmigration of souls. Tertullian, a second century CE Christian theologian and author of On the Resurrection of the Flesh, wrote critically of Platonists who asserted that Homer’s soul passed to Pythagoras, the great mathematician, and to others through a peacock.
At a later and indefinite point, the idea that peacock flesh does not decay gained a footing among Christian theologians and writers. Those who wrote the medieval bestiaries found allegorical and moral significance in the characteristics and behavior of various animals, including the peacock. The Aberdeen Bestiary, written around 1200, reported that the “peacock has hard flesh, resistant to decay, which can only with difficulty be cooked over a fire by a cook, or can scarcely be digested in the stomach….” [https://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/]. Consequently, since the middle ages the peacock has pointed to the Christian belief in the soul’s immortality.
It’s with these ideas about resurrection and immortality in mind that the peacock appears in modern Christian art. A prime example is found in the richly symbolic 20th century stained glass “Resurrection Window” (photo 9, click to enlarge) at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Designed by the Minneapolis firm of Weston & Leighton, it shows the risen Christ standing as a central figure between Mary, his mother, in blue robes, and Mary Magdalene in red. A small peacock is visible atop the lancet window on the extreme right (photo 10). A butterfly, another symbol of resurrection and rebirth, appears opposite in the leftmost lancet. And hearkening back to Persephone in the underworld, an open pomegranate reveals its seeds in a quatrefoil above and to the left of Mary (photo 11).
For more on the peacock and the “eye” in its feathers as a symbol for an all-seeing God, see my post for October 25, 2014 on Gabriel the Messenger and its section on the “Angel of the Covenant” (photo 12).
Copyright 2015, Michael Klug, email@example.com, 9/17/2015