The New Testament mentions at least six different types of birds. Even more are found in the Old Testament. Some non-canonical literature, particularly gnostic manuscripts such as The Gospel of Thomas and The Secret Book of John, also contain references. But focusing on those feathered creatures in the traditional Christian texts—along with a brief look at some of the avian-related folklore, art, and poetry inspired by Jesus and the saints—offers up more than enough material for a post!
Annunciation to Crucifixion
Let’s begin with the obvious, the dove. This bird’s allegorical connection to the Holy Spirit makes it the most prevalent avian icon of Christianity. Today, many churches use doves in their logos and signage, the Gospel Music Association dubs its annual accolades the “Dove Awards”, and until recently the Vatican released doves into St. Peter’s Square. One can find the white-winged creatures in paintings depicting the Annunciation and also Jesus’s baptism. The latter scene is especially noteworthy, as the descriptions given in John 1: 32 and the synoptic gospels (Matthew 3: 16, Mark 1: 10, Luke 3: 22) establish this symbol’s scriptural basis. Furthermore, Jesus mentions the birds in one of his teachings. Extolling doves for their gentle ways, he recommends that his followers behave similarly (Matthew 10: 16).
Despite the dove’s importance, Christ incorporates other birds into his sermons. When mentioning the dead, for instance, he notes the scavenging vultures (Matthew 24: 28, Luke 17: 37). In another teaching, to represent common objects of seemingly little value, he turns his disciples’ eyes to the small sparrows (Matthew 10: 29-31, Luke 12: 6-7). Later, when counseling his followers against worrying, Jesus remarks how the crows (or ravens) do not stockpile food (Luke 12: 24). Thus, alluding to the wisdom of these birds, he indicates that God will provide, too, for his disciples and others in need.
As recorded in the New Testament, birds accompany pivotal events in Christ’s last days and also appear in visions related to the early Church. Jesus’s cleansing of the temple consists not only of driving out the moneychangers but also those merchants who sell sacrificial pigeons (or doves) (Matthew 21: 12-13, Mark 11: 15-16, Luke 19: 45-46, John 2: 16). Later, a situation involving Peter’s repeated denial of knowing Jesus is punctuated with a rooster crowing (Matthew 26: 34, 69-75; Mark 14: 30, 66-72; Luke 22: 34, 56-62; John 13: 38, 18: 25-27). This incident, a fulfillment of Jesus’s prediction, marks the last time any of the four gospels refer to a feathered creature. But birds are reported later again in important visions witnessed by St. Peter (Acts 10: 11-16) and St. John (Revelation 19: 17-21).
While the New Testament does not reveal any birds at the Crucifixion, folklore entertains several narratives. In Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore, the naturalist Ernest Ingersoll runs through numerous “legends of the Cross” that sprung up in Europe. Some of these involve a red crossbill attempting to pry the nails from Jesus’s limbs, a European robin tending to his pierced side, a swallow wresting the sharpest thorns from the crown placed around Jesus’s head, and a dove sitting nearby in mourning (1). These tales passed as just-so stories, attempting to account for certain avian characteristics. For example, the red feathered patches on several birds, according to such legends, originated as stains from Christ’s blood.
Unusual Christian Symbols
Bird imagery, of course, is not always rooted in the events of Jesus’s life. The Greek Orthodox Church, for instance, employs iconography of pagan origins that extends back ages. The double-headed eagle is used today due to the heraldic emblem’s connection to the prior Byzantine Church. However, the design predates Christianity by several thousand years (2). The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints does not identify with any particular avian symbol, but the Salt Lake City community has erected a monument commemorating the summer of 1848 when seagulls supposedly saved early Mormon settlers’ crops from a massive cricket invasion (3).
Centuries ago, European Christians commonly associated certain birds with figures of the New Testament, but did so in a rather tenuous manner. For example, in medieval bestiaries, the pelican is identified with Jesus Christ and the vulture with the Virgin Mary. As noted in a previous post, these works usually have religious and moral reasons for making such odd connections, even when lacking any overt scriptural basis. Some associations seem a little more sensible, though, such as the identification of St. John with the eagle. Medieval manuscripts often linked the two due to the raptor’s early presence in Revelation (e.g., 4: 7, 8: 13), a prophetic book commonly attributed to the apostle (4). Another bird is sometimes identified with St. Peter. Though the stormy petrel is not mentioned in the New Testament, it is supposedly named after Peter and an account in Matthew 14: 29 (5). How so? Well, when this small bird feeds from atop the ocean’s surface, the creature appears to walk on water, just as Peter is said to have done with Jesus.
A few stories assimilate pagan mythology. Many people centuries ago fancied the European goldfinch in the role of the aforementioned swallow at the Cross (6). As cited in a prior post, this belief, conjoined with Christianized ideas regarding antiquity’s mythical charadrius (also caladrius), is likely responsible for hundreds of Renaissance paintings portraying the Christ child with this bird. Of course even earlier, Church Fathers appropriated another legendary creature with pre-Christian origins as a symbol of the Resurrection—the phoenix, sometimes depicted with the attributes of an eagle and peacock (7). Interestingly, St. Augustine of Hippo reports in his City of God that peacock flesh does not decompose, an idea equated later in some bestiaries with immortality (8). Perhaps he even had the phoenix in mind.
Saints and Their Feathered Friends
Numerous legends tell of Christian hermits and evangelists befriending birds. Some of these remarkable relationships include St. Columba’s heron, St. Malo’s wren, and St. Hugh’s swans, among many others (9). One of the most famous of these legends involves “St. Kevin and The Blackbird”, a tale reiterated in verse by Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. In his short poem, Kevin has stretched his arm outside a window when a blackbird lands in his open palm and lays its eggs. The saint then, while praying, miraculously steadies his arm and hand in place, “Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks / Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.” (10) An incredible story, but not without precedent! The Hindu Mahabharata offers a similar tale about a hermit named Jajali, except in that ascetic’s case the birds nest on his head (11).
The most celebrated of all Christians in regard to our winged neighbors, of course, is St. Francis of Assisi. His sermons to these creatures are commonly portrayed in Western art, ranging from the Giotto’s late 13th-century “St. Francis Preaching to the Birds” to Sir Stanley Spencer’s provocative 20th-century “St. Francis and the Birds”. The theme occurs, too, in verse, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Sermon of St. Francis” (12) as well as another of Heaney’s poems, “Saint Francis and the Birds” (13). But again, St. Francis, is just one of many figures in Christianity associated with birds.
On the whole, Christianity has exerted an immense bearing on the portrayal of birds in Western art (e.g., Hieronymous Bosch, Raphael, Josefa de Obidos, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Olga Suvorova, etc.) and literature (e.g., John Donne, John Milton, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Denise Levertov, Geoffrey Hill, etc.). A single blog post cannot come remotely close to examining the historical dynamics of this theme, a point that holds true as well for other religions. At the very least, I’m hoping that the information provided offers a decent overview.
For a look at avian creatures in the Old Testament, please see the previous post on Judaism. As always, thanks for reading—especially such a lengthy piece! Next week, I would like to view birds in Islam, the last of the Abrahamic faiths.
- Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. pp. 112-115.
- Ingersoll, E. pp. 28-34.
- “Seagull Monument, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA”, Mormon Historic Sites Foundation: http://mormonhistoricsites.org/seagull-monument/.
- Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. p. 144.
- Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 56.
- Ingersoll, E. p. 113.
- Ingersoll, E. pp. 196-198.
- Heck, C. pp.44, 477-478.
- Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin & Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions. London: Willmer Brothers & Haram Ltd., Birkenhead for Collins Clear-Type Press, 1958. p. xiv.
- Heaney, S.J. “St. Kevin and the Blackbird”, The Poetry Archive: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/st-kevin-and-blackbird.
- Williams, G.M. Handbook of Hindu Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. p. 160.
- Longfellow, H.W. “The Sermon of St. Francis” (http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=232).
- Heaney, S.J. “Saint Francis and the Birds”, Emory University’s Lewis H. Beck Center: http://beck.library.emory.edu/BelfastGroup/browse.php?id=heaney1_1041#heaney1_1035.