Grave Matters: Avian Cemetery Art

cemetary.jpg

Many people tend to be creeped out by graveyards and memorial gardens, especially around Halloween and the Day of the Dead. Yet these places can have the opposite effect, awakening in visitors a newfound sense of the sacred and beautiful, offering an intimate perspective on history, and stoking spiritual contemplation.

Inside such sanctuaries, past the wrought iron fences, stand rows of headstones and tomb monuments (including mausoleums). On them are dates, epitaphs, and symbols, altogether the final expressions of the dead. By way of these chiseled features on marker stones, the deceased communicate with the living. Ornamentation, of which carvings and sculptures of birds are especially noteworthy, accentuates this connection.

Spiritual Symbols and Signposts

Avian iconography, among the most pervasive of contemporary animal-based cemetery themes, is widespread, having been linked to burial and entombment for millennia. The ancient Egyptians were particularly fascinated with birds in this regard. Besides mummifying ibises1 and falcons,2 they placed wooden human-headed bird figurines with their dead.3 Similarly, American Indians thousands of years ago included so-called birdstones in graves.4 In China, images of cranes were painted to decorate the tomb of a fourteenth-century Taoist priest,5 while ancient sculptures of birds atop cedar trees remain throughout Iran’s ancient Dar al-Salam cemetery.6

Winged creatures of many kinds hold spiritual significance to the deceased. Here in the United States, where the predominant religion is Christianity, the dove is the primary bird of choice.7 This is understandable considering the animal’s historical connections to ritualized purity (e.g., Leviticus 1:14–17) and symbolic importance to the Holy Spirit (e.g., Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32). But it’s not the only feathered beauty to be depicted on Christian burial monuments. For example, statues and carvings of peacocks can also be seen, principally in Europe.8 Such imagery calls to mind the birds’ centuries-old association with immortality, as cited in medieval bestiaries and taught much earlier by St. Augustine, who claimed from his own personal observations that peafowl flesh would not rot.9

Special Circumstances          

While religion is a central component of most cemetery art, symbols found in graveyards are sometimes dedicated to a loved one’s heritage and occupation. Therefore, swans, hawks, and other avian iconography appear in heraldic designs on headstones, as American families have wished to accentuate their ties to European ancestry through such features.10 Also, a person’s fame and accomplishments, especially if exemplary, occasionally take symbolic form in granite and marble. Consider the carved raven on Edgar Allan Poe’s old grave marker or the avifauna depicted on John James Audubon’s memorial tomb.

On a sidenote, some cemetery pieces have been known to develop a life of their own. One of these is the Bird Girl sculpture.11 Featured on the cover of John Berendt’s 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, this bronze statue from the Bonaventure Cemetery outside Savannah, GA, emerged as a popular tourist attraction. Concerns however eventually led to the Bird Girl’s relocation; it now safely resides in the Telfair Museum’s Jepson Center, not far from Bonaventure.12

Final Respects

Though the Bird Girl no longer dwells among obelisks, crosses, tablets, and other grave art, lots of avian imagery and bird-related figures can be seen on longstanding monuments to the deceased. For people intrigued by symbology, the presence of such visuals makes for interesting sightseeing. Actual birds—not those crafted from stone—are likely to be spotted and heard, too, as memorial gardens are the unofficial bird sanctuaries of urban areas. So very little in cemeteries is creepy. On the other hand, much exists to appreciate and ponder.

Sources:

  1. Wilkinson, P, Philip, N. Mythology. New York: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2007. p. 105.
  2. Scalf, R. “The Role of Birds within the Religious Landscape of Ancient Egypt.” Bailleul-LeSuer, R (editor). Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt (publication for Oct. 15, 2012 – July 28, 2013 exhibition). The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Oriental Institute Museum Publications 35, 2012. pp. 34–35.
  3. Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (editor). Catalog no. 34, “Birds in Death and the Afterlife.” Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt. p. 201.
  4. Lenik, EJ. Making Pictures in Stone: American Indian Rock Art of the Northeast. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2009. p. 217.
  5. Hung, W. Art of the Yellow Springs: Understanding Chinese Tombs. London, UK: Reaktion Books, 2010. p. 61.
  6. Parsayi, M, Rad, FS, Mazloomi, SM. “Study of Graphical Features on Gravestones of an Ancient Iranian Cemetery.” Material Religion. Vol. 10, Issue 1 (March 2014). pp. 124–127.
  7. Keister, D. Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2004. pp. 79–80.
  8. Keister, D. pp. 83–84.
  9. Augustine of Hippo. The City of God, Books XVII–XXII (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 24). Walsh, GG, Honan, DJ (translators). Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2008 (first printed: 1954). Book XXI, chapter 4. p. 345.
  10. Clark, EW. “The Bigham Carvers of the Carolina Piedmont: Stone Images of an Emerging Sense of American Identity.” Cemeteries & Gravemarkers: Voices of American Culture. Meyer, RE (editor). Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1992. p. 41.
  11. This sculpture, one of several made by artist Sylvia Shaw Judson, consists of a young female who holds two pan-like bowls. Since no birds are depicted, the origin of the statue’s Bird Girl nickname is not apparent. The prevailing idea is that the bowls may have served as feeders. However, another possibility is that, when rainwater filled the bowls, they functioned as birdbaths.
  12. Stollznow, K. “The Haunted (Pseudo) History of Bonaventure Cemetery,” 8/3/2009. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry: http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/the_haunted_pseudo_history_of_bonaventure_cemetery.

A Salute to National Birds

quetzel

Several comments from my last post got me thinking. Most countries have national birds. But why? What do they matter? And which characteristics make for an effective one?

The custom is widespread, a heraldic vestige dating back to ancient empires and the once-flourishing practice of coats of arms. Countries as culturally diverse and far away from one another as Finland (the whooper swan), India (the Indian peafowl), and South Africa (the blue crane) give a nod to their avian preferences.1 As previously noted, the bald eagle was declared part of the United States’ official symbol in 1782, back when the country adopted its Great Seal.

Not all birds are sanctioned as national representatives; some have become accepted by consensus or through online voting. Such is the case with the United Kingdom’s European robin.2 It holds true as well for the common loon, a traditional but unofficial favorite of Canada. This is why Canadian Geographic’s National Bird Project is conducting an online poll for selecting the top vote-getter from a bevy of avian candidates. Thus far, the common loon is leading. The aim of this project, once complete, is to persuade the Canadian government to act, making the nomination official.

Identity Politics

Generally speaking, the national bird is a cultural favorite that demonstrates some symbolic significance. The chosen symbol usually connotes a sense of respect, which undoubtedly accounts for the popularity of the eagle, a large bird associated with strength and expansive vision, as well as the ability to soar to great heights. Yet much more seems required for becoming a national bird than mere symbolism alone.

Most national birds, from best I can tell, fulfill three qualities:

  • The avifauna are native species found throughout many regions of a nation (either during breeding or wintering periods, or both).
  • Their features (and/or cultural relevance) are exceptional or distinctive in some manner (e.g., color, size, song) in relation to other native birds, as well as to other national birds.
  • They inspire special devotion and graphical representation within the national domain.

Thus, the first factor explains why the African fish eagle is appropriate for Zambia and the gyrfalcon for Iceland but not vice versa. The second factor provides further justification for why the colorful keel-billed toucan of Belize, the call-carrying bare-throated bellbird of Paraguay, the enormous emu of Australia, and the diminutive kiwi of New Zealand are national birds. And the third factor involves the depiction of these creatures on flags, currency, stamps, and the like. Think of this as the public relations campaign aspect of celebrating a national bird.

Vexillology? Numismatics?

Those familiar with The Big Bang Theory sit-com, may remember the fictional video podcast series called “Fun with Flags.” For their nerdy online project, hosts Sheldon and his girlfriend Amy regularly shared factoids about vexillology. For those unfamiliar with the term, that’s the study of flags—and, yes, the duo’s stilted conservation was that comically technical.

Unfortunately, poor Sheldon suffers from ornithophobia. However, if he and Amy had managed to record a podcast examining birds on national flags, they would have noted that very few include avian images, only about a dozen or so. And, not surprisingly, roughly a third of those display raptors, mostly eagles. Among the most unusual of birds featured on flags are Dominica’s imperial Amazon parrot, Uganda’s grey-crowned crane, and Kiribati’s frigatebird.

Interestingly, while the Andean condor is considered the national bird of several South American countries,3 its presence graces only a single national flag, that of Ecuador. The raptor however is among several avifauna depicted simultaneously on both flags and currency, a group that also includes Mexico’s golden eagle4 and Papua New Guinea’s bird-of-paradise.5 By the way, here’s another word worthy of a Sheldon podcast: numismatics. If you were wondering, that’s the term for the study of currency.

National Treasures

Of all the national birds, the one that arguably occupies the most prominent status is Guatemala’s resplendent quetzal. Valued for its beautiful feathers, this creature was linked centuries ago to two major Mesoamerican deities, Quetzalcoatl and Quetzalpetlatl.6 In honor of the bird’s historical and cultural significance, the quetzal not only appears today on Guatemala’s flag, banknotes, and coins, but its name has been conferred upon the national monetary system.7 Thus, rather than dollars or pesos, financial transactions are made in quetzals.

A lot of countries, of course, display a variety of birds and other animals on their currency. Doing so is a way to increase awareness of native wildlife and encourage conservation.8 Featuring creatures on flags and as national birds, national mammals, national reptiles, etc., is another means of cultivating an appreciation of the many lifeforms and environments in our home countries and abroad. For me, these are the most important reasons for having a national bird or national any-other-creature.

Sources:

  1. Long, A. “National Bird Day – Time to Take Pride in Your Birds,” 1/5/2016. BirdLife International: http://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/news/national-bird-day-time-take-pride-your-birds.
  2. Mathiesen, K. “Robin Wins Vote for UK‘s National Bird,” 6/10/2015. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jun/10/robin-wins-vote-uk-national-bird-britain.
  3. Long, A.
  4. Armstrong, EA. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, 1975. p. 73. (Note: arguments based on Aztec legend do exist for the northern crested caracara over the golden eagle as the actual bird on Mexico’s flag.)
  5. Armstrong, EA. p. 150.
  6. Wilkinson, P, Philip, N. Mythology. New York: Metro Books, 2007. pp. 212–213.
  7. Bowers, AL, Perez, RC. Birds of the Mayas: A Collection of Mayan Folk Tales. Big Moose, NY: West-of-the-Wind Publications, 1964. p. 5.
  8. International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Voices: 5 Countries Putting All Their Money on Species,” 8/8/2014. National Geographic: http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/08/5-countries-putting-all-their-money-on-species/.

 

Ben Franklin v. the Bald Eagle

benfranklin

It’s an odd curiosity of early American history. In a letter to a family member, the coauthor of the Declaration of Independence decides to throw shade at his nation’s new symbol. Why he did this may seem a little perplexing at first. But context is important, especially here. So let’s try to better understand where Benjamin Franklin was coming from in his criticism of the bald eagle.

The Bald Eagle as a U.S. Symbol

The founding father’s 1784 missive was written only about a year and a half after the United States adopted the bald eagle as part of the country’s Great Seal.1 In a bit of historical trivia, Franklin served on the first of three committees dedicated to creating the design.2 Later, he used the seal while acting as a U.S. ambassador in France.3 However, during his post there is also when he penned that infamous letter to his daughter, Mrs. Sarah Bache.

In that piece of overseas correspondence, Franklin declares, “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country.”4 Then the Philadelphian sage states three reasons for his objection, two specifically relating to the creature’s “bad moral character” and a third regarding the popularity and pervasiveness of eagles in general. Overall, he asserts (or appears to) that the bald eagle is an unfit symbol for a democratic republic free of monarchic rule and aristocratic ties.

Examining Franklin’s Case

For Exhibit A, he accuses the bald eagle of being a lazy cheat, apt to forcing the osprey, by means of harassment, to relinquish its catch. And, indeed, Franklin is right about the raptor’s behavior. Though bald eagles will hunt their own fish, they frequently bully food away from other birds. This is evident in the Grand Prize-winning photo from this year’s Audubon Photography Awards; that stunning picture captures a bald eagle ambushing great blue herons.

Thievery, however, is the smallest of problems Franklin has with the bald eagle. Moving on to Exhibit B, he seizes upon what he considers its greatest fault, calling the raptor a “rank coward,” prone to fleeing from “a little king bird, not bigger than a sparrow.” What Franklin meant by “king bird” is not clear,5 but there is some truth in his anecdotal statement. When mobbed by smaller feathered creatures, such as crows and sparrows, many raptors do choose to fly off rather than fight. Bald eagles and other avian predators have little to gain in these situations other than aggravation. Nevertheless, despite being rooted in some truth, Franklin’s description is still quite misleading and incomplete.

Bald eagles are generally aggressive birds. As the founding father acknowledges, they confront and hassle ospreys for their fish. Yet he conspicuously fails to mention that bald eagles also will tangle with their own kind. For instance, they are known to engage in bloody territorial battles. In addition, these raptors will assault other large birds. Not long ago, one attacked a Canada goose, the skirmish documented in a series of photographs.

Franklin’s last gripe regards eagles by and large, and could be related to the birds’ popularity as heraldic figures. His Exhibit C dismisses the bald eagle simply because eagles in general are “found in all countries.” Though he does not build on this point, what the founding father may be alluding to is the eagle’s extensive history as an emblem of ancient empires and aristocratic cultures. For Franklin, such imperial associations, though involving other species, possibly make the bald eagle—and even the golden eagle for that matter—an inappropriate symbol for a democratic nation.

Is There a Better Bird?

When dismissing the bald eagle, Ben Franklin looks to another bird, one he considers “much more respectable.” This is the turkey. Despite conceding the fowl “a little vain and silly,” Franklin asserts that it is fearless enough to defend its farmyard from “a grenadier of the British guards.” Sure, a laughable claim for some, but wild turkeys have indeed been known to attack humans, sometimes even going after mailmen and police officers. The domesticated variety aren’t as intimidating, but don’t underestimate them.

The gobbler has had its share of fans, John James Audubon being the most high-profile. He used the male wild turkey’s image, along with the motto “America My Country,” for his personal seal.6 Yet, unlike Franklin, Audubon had positive things to say about the bald eagle. In his Birds of America, he describes the raptor as a “noble bird” of “great strength, daring, and cool courage.”7 Why shouldn’t both the wild turkey and the bald eagle, large and formidable creatures found throughout much of the United States, be deserving of respect?

The bald eagle/turkey debate unfortunately has long taken on a life of its own. Many people want to choose sides; however, I’d highly recommend not doing so without considering the subject and context of Franklin’s letter. First, he never advocates replacing the bald eagle on the U.S. Great Seal with the turkey. Second, his missive was prompted not by an issue he had with the seal, but by a controversial plan of the Society of the Cincinnati, an American Revolutionary War veterans group. Franklin was concerned that this organization would become, in his words, “an order of hereditary knights.” His letter is devoted to this topic, and the tangents he makes (such as the one involving the bald eagle) are all related to his attack on the organization’s proposal.

What specifically provoked Franklin’s ire was the Society of the Cincinnati’s plan “of establishing ranks of nobility” by bequeathing membership and medals to the current members’ descendants. Like the Great Seal, the medals do feature an eagle. Perhaps Franklin would not have even aired his opinions on the bald eagle or the turkey if not for those medals. The reason he appears to bring up the matter at all is to concur with other critics that the group’s design “looks more like a turkey,” something—if you take Franklin’s words at face value—he actually favors. Perhaps, though, he was being facetious.

A Winning Verdict

Since Franklin’s letter heavily mingles wit, charm, and wisdom, it is questionable at times whether he is being wholly serious or, in parts, satirical. Consider, too, that he was living an ocean away from his fellow citizens. Isn’t it possible that he may have attempted to stir some controversy over the Great Seal to maximize attention to his letter? After all, he clearly had a much more important matter in mind than avian emblematic figures.

Ultimately, let’s not make too much out of Franklin’s commentary on the bald eagle and the turkey. Both are beautiful birds in their own ways and worthy of celebration year-round and during the Fourth of July!

Sources:

  1. U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Public Affairs. “The Great Seal of the United States.” Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of State, 2003. p. 1: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/27807.pdf.
  2. U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Public Affairs. p. 2.
  3. Anderson, SH. The Most Splendid Carpet. Philadelphia, PA: National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, 1978: https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/inde/anderson/chap5a.htm.
  4. Rising, G. “Benjamin Franklin Talks Turkey” [article includes Franklin’s letter in its entirety]. Nature Watch University at Buffalo: http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~insrisg/nature/nw98/franklinturkey.html.
  5. The “king bird” and similar epithets (e.g., “regulus” and “little king”) have been used since antiquity to describe wren species. However, a better candidate in this case is the eastern kingbird. Since Franklin is also using the term as a metaphor for the British king, he could have had some other bird in mind.
  6. Rhodes, R. John James Audubon: The Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. p. 273.
  7. Audubon, JJ. “White-headed Eagle,” The Birds of America. National Audubon Society: http://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/white-headed-eagle.

 

Birdbaths: a Splash in Ancient History

pompeiiBirdbath

Despite the simplicity of its design (or perhaps because of it), the birdbath has outlasted the Roman Empire and become an iconic fixture of suburban gardens and lawns today.

Actually, whether the ancient Romans invented birdbaths is questionable.1 However, there is abundant evidence that they used them. Archaeology reveals that this Mediterranean culture, which popularized bathhouses for its citizenry, in fact constructed wash stations for its avian visitors. (The Romans’ fascination with bathhouses and birdbaths seems like more than coincidence.)

Buried under the Ashes                                                                                     

The concept behind the basic birdbath goes back at least a couple millennia. In areas near Mt. Vesuvius, excavations have unearthed these garden ornaments along with artistic depictions of them on walls. For example, archaeologists have noted marble remnants of birdbaths among the first-century ruins of Herculaneum.2 Also, in nearby Pompeii and Oplontis, teams have located villa paintings of birds perched on and around birdbaths. The above illustration by J.M. Landin is based on an ancient Roman fresco.

One of the most impressive paintings from this period comes from Pompeii’s Villa Livia. It’s a wall fresco that features numerous avifauna—an oriole, magpie, sparrows, and pigeons, among other species—congregating throughout a lush garden of plants and flowers.3 The setting’s centerpiece, a basin-shaped bowl atop a pedestal, is unmistakable. That the object is shown with so many feathered creatures leaves little doubt that we’re looking at a birdbath.

Many birds bathe to maintain their feathers. They, of course, also use the water from fountains and basins for hydration. Illustrations of birds drinking at birdbaths are a theme of ancient classical paintings. While most are idyllic, such as those in a fresco from the Villa of Poppaea at Oplontis,4 a few are not. In one mosaic from Pompeii, a bird sits along the rim of a birdbath, lowering its beak, as two other winged neighbors, possibly parrots, gaze below in the vicinity of a small, skulking feline.5

Birdbaths and Beyond

Throughout history, birdbath designs have ranged from the small and simple, like the short-pedestalled basin (along with a pair of doves) illustrated on the ceiling within the fifth-century Galla Placidia mausoleum in Ravenna, Italy,6 to the large and lavish designs found in palace courtyards. Besides traditional elevated versions with the slender base, those that rest on the ground or hang are also common.

Today’s ornaments are made from a much wider variety of materials, including marble, granite, metal, concrete, terra-cotta, and glass. Some modern versions are even equipped with heating features to prevent winter freezing.

Overall, though, the birdbath is “timeless” in its design. Not much generally separates the ones in your neighbors’ lawns from the fare of ancient Roman villa gardens. Very little, of course, other than a span of two thousand years.

Sources:

  1. Many cultures preceding the ancient Romans may have discovered and used similar versions. Due to the relatively unsophisticated design work required to make a functional birdbath, the idea may have originated from unattended pottery, particularly wash basins, that attracted thirsty birds. Imagining such instances is not hard. After all, Pliny records in his Natural History (book 36, chapter 60) that Sosus, a Greek artist of second century BCE, had composed a mosaic painting that included a dove drinking from a basin-like vessel.
  2. Bowe, P, DeHart, MD. Gardens and Plants of the Getty Villa. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications, 2011. p. 61.
  3. Mackey, E, Bernstein, R. “Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples.” Museum Associates / Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2009: http://www.lacma.org/eduprograms/EvesforEds/PompeiiandtheRomanVillaEssay.pdf.
  4. Bowe, P. Gardens of the Roman World. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications, 2004. p. 96.
  5. Engels, DW. Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat. New York: Routledge, 2001. p. 98.
  6. Note that the Galla Placidia mausoleum hyperlink (via University of Columbia) provides an interactive, 360-degree view inside the structure.

A Feast for the Eyes?

Painting_d'Hondecoeter

Humans have long demonstrated an enormous appetite for animal flesh. At some point in history just about every creature has been hunted and considered food. And of those, birds have been among the most popular.

People think of chicken and turkey as the principal fowl for consumption. However, a few hundred years ago, the dietary range of European royalty and nobles far exceeded today’s standard domesticated fare. This is evident from both historical accounts and the fine arts.

Some Food for Thought

Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century art provides insights into a Western European culture obsessed with feathered trophies and wild game. In numerous works by Melchior d’Hondecoeter (like the one above), Jan Weenix (see below), Jean-Baptiste Oudry, William van Aelst, and Carstian Luyckx, ample collections of slain avifauna are depicted. From such still-life paintings, one can see that traditional meal favorites included dove, duck, goose, quail, pheasant, and partridge.

No doubt, the thematic display of limp animal carcasses, some bound and bloodstained, is disturbing to modern sensibilities. However, Europe’s aristocracy felt quite differently about these masterpieces. Patrons deemed game subjects a symbolic display of their power and wealth.1, 2 After all, the nobility were the ones who owned large estates of countryside and wilderness for hunting purposes. Moreover, some people of rising status borrowed upon this tradition as a means of conveying their own growing influence, which may explain why Rembrandt painted a self-portrait of himself holding a dead bittern by its legs.3

Painting_Weenix

A Spread Fit for a King

The practice of showcasing one’s bounty can be traced well beyond Rembrandt and this period of game paintings. Prior accounts note many medieval kings and lords holding lavish banquets where attendees dined on bittern, swan, heron, and peacock.4 Some events such as the Feast of Swans (Edward I) and the Feast of the Pheasant (Philip the Good) were held to secure support for possible military campaigns.5, 6 Flaunting one’s affluence and means was a way to advance special causes and entice cooperation.

At celebratory banquets like these, food was not merely a gustatory experience; it was employed as an over-the-top embellishment. The most famous example of these is the boar’s head with an apple lodged within its mouth.7 But such entremets and subtleties could be far more extravagant. Take for instance a baked swan that spews fire—thanks in part to a technique enhanced by alcohol-dowsed cotton!8 Special effects in the medieval culinary arts were surprisingly innovative.

The entertainment value of meals could also be used to relay a message or theme. Some hosts imparted dishes with symbolic significance, as was the case of a feast honoring the newly installed King of England Henry V. At that event the monarch’s staff served his guests a couple dozen cooked swans bearing scrolls.9

Dynamic Roles of Birds in Culture

Just as people today think of birds as something more than merely a food source, the same of course was true of Europeans ages ago. In some cases exotic feathered creatures were portrayed as living subjects, as in this d’Hondecoeter painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Birds have served many cultural functions throughout history and continue to do so. Nevertheless, there is no denying the role fowl held in Western European societies, not just as game or fine art—but simultaneously as both.

Sources:

  1. Henisch, BA. Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976. p. 229.
  2. Sullivan, SA. “Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with a Dead Bittern.” College Art Association. The Art Bulletin 62, No. 2 (Jun., 1980). pp. 236–243.
  3. Sullivan, SA. pp. 236–243.
  4. Henisch, BA. p. 229.
  5. Strickland, M. “Treason, Feud and the Growth of State Violence.” Given-Wilson, C, et al (editors). War, Government and Aristocracy in the British Isles, c.1150–1500: Essays in Honour of Michael Prestwich. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2008. pp. 104–107.
  6. Bowles, EA. “Instruments at the Court of Burgundy (13631467).” The Galpin Society Journal. Vol. 6 (Jul., 1953). pp. 41–51.
  7. Henisch, BA. p. 229.
  8. Scully, T. The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2005. p. 162.
  9. Henisch, BA. p. 233.

Happy Draw a Bird Day!

MREbird_for DABD

The demoiselle crane. Though it has a French name, this bird—the smallest of all the cranes—is native to northern Africa and parts of Eurasia, such as China and India.

This species, like other cranes, is celebrated in mythology and folklore. For example, Turkish folk songs fancy the bird a messenger of lovers (1). The creature’s graceful beauty seems ideally suited for such associations, even if my illustration fails to do it justice! By the way, demoiselle is French for “damsel.” This name was bestowed to it by one of the most famous queens in history. Marie Antoinette (2).

For illustrations of more feathered beauties, please check out Laura’s Create Art Every Day and Kerfe and Nina’s Method Two Madness. Laura started the monthly DAB Days, and Kerfe and Nina are doing the roundup of DAB Day illustrations from WordPress blogs. There will be links to a whole “flock” of drawings!

Sources:

  1. Kara, M, Teres, E. “The Crane as Symbol of Fidelity in Turkish and Japanese Cultures.” Milli Folklor. Yil 24, Sayi 95. p. 198–199.
  2. Mynott, J. Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. p. 29.

 

 

 

Countdown to Draw A Bird Day

drawBird2016

April 8th marks the annual celebration of Draw A Bird Day. It began in honor of a girl named Dorie Cooper. Not only did she love to illustrate birds, but she also encouraged others—many of them hospitalized veterans—to do so. More about her story and short life can be found on the official DAB Day website.

As noted previously, this holiday is a memorial to Dorie’s enthusiasm for our feathered neighbors and the therapeutic value of making art. Fortunately for us, lots of people of all ages and walks of life continue to demonstrate how much fun drawing songbirds, waterfowl, raptors, and the like can be.

Many of these incredible folks are online. One of them is Laura at Create Art Every Day. In just the past year alone she has inspired a cadre of artists, photographers, and poets on WordPress to participate in regular Draw A Bird Days on the 8th day of every month. Kerfe and Nina at Method Two Madness have also been very active on this front. Their recent roundup of monthly participants can be found here. Some of the birds featured in March were a wood stork, pine grosbeak, American robins, bald eagles, blue jays, chickadees, egrets, herons, owls, and parrots. Please check them out, and also look soon for the upcoming roundup!

RMK_Grackle

I’m planning to contribute a drawing on the 8th, and my wife may post one for her blog, Red Newt Gallery. Since she also provides the artwork here, Draw A Bird Day occurs about every two weeks for her! Anyway, for this post we’re featuring an illustration from Kaeli, our neighbors’ talented nine-year-old daughter. You may remember her drawing from last year’s post about Draw A Bird Day. Many thanks to her again! Also, a special thanks to my mother-in-law for letting me post her recent painting of a grackle.

I’m looking forward to Draw A Bird Day. Hope you are, too!

“Spirited” Away?

alcohol_birds

If you want to sell something, stamp a bird’s image or name on it. This seems to best sum up the strategy of the alcohol industry. Goose Island Beer, Swan Draught, Woodforde’s Once Bittern Norfolk Ale, Emu Bitter, Kingfisher Premium Lager, Magpie Pale Ale, Bluebird Bitter, First Sparrow Smoked Wheat Ale, and Rude Parrot IPA are just a few examples in this sector’s extensive inventory.

Not only breweries, but liquor producers and winemakers seem obsessed, too. The Famous Grouse blended Scotch whiskey, Grey Goose vodka, Captain Morgan Parrot Bay flavored rum, Black Swan wines, and Kestrel Vintners. Why are dozens of alcoholic beverage manufacturers choosing birds to “hawk” their brands? For that matter, why do companies in general incorporate birds into their ads and logos?

Advertising from a “Bird’s-Eye View”

Relying on our feathered neighbors to promote certain types of products and services makes sense. For instance, the rationale behind the airline industry’s choice of bird-related imagery is easy. Birds fly. What better symbol than an avian one conjures the beauty of soaring through the skies? Hence, we have the eagle of American Airlines, the crane of Japan Airlines, the namesake of Germany’s Condor Flugdienst, the falcon of Air Arabia, and the goose of Turkish airlines.

Advertising also has worked for several products and services with no direct links whatsoever to birds. In commercials, AFLAC’s white duck repeatedly spouts the name of its insurance company—a humorous, off-beat reminder that rhymes with “quack.” Decades before, TV ads featuring Vlasic Pickles’ talking stork elevated that brand to iconic status. Folklore has long associated the stork with maternity (1, 2, 3). Vlasic continues to play on this idea, conjoining it with the craving for pickles that sometimes occurs during pregnancy.

A couple other brands come to mind. Twitter, an online technology company, enables a person to send out short bursts of info, likened to a bird’s “tweet.” That analogy is clever. Unilever’s Dove soap features an avian symbol and moniker. This also works, because these creatures have long been connected with beauty (e.g., Greco-Roman mythology) and purity (e.g., Christianity).

Several bird-themed ads for alcohol products have enjoyed immense success, too. Perhaps this is why so many beer and spirits brands keep flocking to avian themes. To better understand this phenomenon, let’s take a quick look at some of the most well-known ones.

An International Menagerie

Irish brewer Guinness ran one of the most memorable international advertising campaigns of the twentieth century. Featuring many animals (e.g., ostrich, pelican, penguin, sea lion, giraffe, etc.) throughout its series of ads, Guinness indicates that “the most famous of all” its unusual creatures was the toco toucan (4). The bird’s use in its advertising was so poignant that one may see similar images employed today by Irish pubs.

Regarding the bird’s appearance in Guinness’s advertising, British naturalist and author Mark Cocker sees a metaphor for that brewer’s ale, what he describes as, “This black beer…” topped with a “… delicious creamy white head…” (5) However, he also explains, “The bird’s simple colours echoed the graphic black-and-white nature of the drink itself, but otherwise there were no authentic connections.” (6) Moreover, while not native to Ireland, the tropical, large-beaked fowl may have helped the country’s iconic brewer reach out beyond European consumers.

Guinness discontinued using this South American toucan in its ads decades ago, but many brands today still rely heavily on birds to represent their alcoholic products. Captain Morgan recently introduced its Parrot Bay rum, which plays with the pirate-parrot link while incorporating the colorful psittacine to connote the product’s added tropical flavors. Also, several breweries and distilleries have long employed avian imagery evocative of heraldic symbolism. Smirnoff’s double-headed eagle, Anheuser-Busch’s eagle, Wild Turkey’s gobbler, and Hardy’s rooster evoke a kind of age-old, regal-like quality, not unlike the eagle for Barclays banking and financial services and the swan for Swarovski jewelry.

Folks in the beer, wine, and spirits business appear unable to resist the metaphoric power of birds. The appeal is understandable—to a certain degree. Birds are wild, some are exotic, and most are capable of flight. Alcohol possesses analogous characteristics, as a peculiar and distinctive “untamed” beverage. Though a depressant, it produces intoxicating, mood-elevating effects that could be likened at times to “flying.” While such associations still seem contrived at best, I do see them. From a marketing perspective, though, there’s a much larger issue.

Crowded Market

Here’s the problem. Related products using similar ad concepts make standing out from one another difficult, especially when the items and concepts are loosely connected. The American automotive industry demonstrated this point years ago. A plethora of vehicles once sported bird monikers (7), from the Ford Falcon and Plymouth Road Runner to the Buick Skylark and Eagle Talon. Several names for popular cars, such as the Ford Thunderbird, Pontiac Firebird, and Pontiac Sunbird, were based on imaginary avian creatures. Yet the industry’s long-running fascination with birds, even mythical ones, has not turned out well. Good luck today finding any new automobiles named after one.

The market for alcohol, a legal but regulated drug, is obviously different than most. The bird-inspired branding behind Yuengling lager, Grey Goose vodka, André Cold Duck wine, Campbeltown Loch blended Scotch whiskey, and many other beverages doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. But if the trend gets out of hand, beer, wine, and spirits producers will have to change course to differentiate themselves.

For the sake of comparison, just imagine if Sonny the Cuckoo Bird, Toucan Sam, Cornelius the rooster, and the Puffins had to contend with the likes of a Flakey the Finch, Granola Grouse, and a roster of other potential fill-in-the-blank cereal-aisle rivals. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

Don’t let advertising go to the birds.

Sources:

  1. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. Delacorte Press Hardcover Edition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. pp. 131-132.
  2. Tresidder, J. Symbols and Their Meanings: The Illustrated Guide to More than 1,000 Symbols—Their Traditional and Contemporary Significance. New York: Metro Books, 2006. p. 72.
  3. Cocker, M, Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. p. 122.
  4. “Factsheet: Gilroy and Animals”. Guinness Storehouse: http://www.guinness-storehouse.com/en/pdfs/factsheets/factsheet_pdf_7.pdf.
  5. Cocker, M, Tipling, D. p. 334.
  6. Cocker, M, Tipling, D. p. 334.
  7. Snyder, JB. “Thanksgiving List: 13 Cars Named After Birds”, 11/24/2010. Winding Road: http://www.windingroad.com/articles/lists/thanksgiving-list-13-cars-named-after-birds/.

 

Symbolism behind Coats of Arms

heraldry_bestiary

Ostriches are fond of eating shiny metal objects. Or so the thinking used to go. Insignias on coats of arms reinforced this difficult-to-digest idea, as did medieval bestiaries. Even William Shakespeare refers to the notion in a dramatic duel scene:

 … I’ll make thee eat iron like an ostrich and
swallow my sword like a great pin…

This curious threat comes from one of the bard’s staged histories, The Second Part of King Henry VI (Act 4, Scene 10, Lines 28-29).

Though not native to England, these big birds were brought there long before Shakespeare’s time. In fact, several royal precursors to Henry VI owned ostriches, including Normandy’s William the Conqueror and King John. The latter kept them among his stable of exotic creatures. Interestingly, archaeological digs of London’s old Lion Tower have uncovered nails near the neck bones of these birds’ remains, suggesting that people once fed ostriches sharp metal pieces (1). Wow, talk about heartburn!

Notions of iron-eating ostriches captivated the European imagination, as evident from iconography depicting ostriches with nails, keys, and horseshoes in their beaks. Typically representing an individual of great authority or religious zeal (2), the images made up part of a vast collection of symbols used in heraldry.

Emblems for Nations, Statesmen, and Rock Stars

Heraldry is an elaborate system of symbols used to represent the identities of individuals, families, cities, and nations. Though primarily associated today with European nobility, the practice spans the world and goes back thousands of years. Several ancient nations of the Middle East adopted representational images of the eagle (3), a bird that has remained popular as a heraldic symbol. Similar displays of national coats of arms are designed in the spirit of this tradition. Many feature feathered animals: Chile’s includes the condor; Uganda’s, the crested crane; and Nauru’s, the frigatebird (4)

Individuals have frequently relied on avian symbols for expressing personal characteristics, such as rank, origin, and occupation. Adorning Sir Paul McCartney’s coat of arms are a guitar and a “liver bird,” the latter a heraldic emblem of the former Beatle’s hometown, Liverpool (5). By the way, the “liver bird” is based on the cormorant, just as the mythical martlet, a small bird depicted without feet, is modeled on the swallow or house martin (6). Commonly used by the younger sons of a large family, the martlet appears in several places on Ben Franklin’s arms (7). Franklin, after all, was one of seventeen children!

The Fun Side of Heraldry

Sometimes considered esoteric and stale, heraldry I’ve discovered can be rather fascinating—even amusing. For example, take the coat of arms of Benjamin Franklin’s contemporary, American statesman John Hancock. This man obviously had a sense of humor. Making light of his name, he chose an open hand and three roosters or cocks as his symbols (8).

William Shakespeare’s coat of arms suggests that he, too, had fun using images to play on his surname. The “spear” element is obvious: prominently displayed are a couple of large, pen-like items of the weapon (9). The “shake” part of the design, however, relies on an unfamiliar reference. Gripping one of the spears is a falcon readying for flight. This action didn’t initially mean anything to me, but I soon learned that the motion is referred to in falconry as “the shaking” (10). As a result, I came away once again impressed with the wit of England’s greatest punster and wordsmith.

Though not as popular as during Shakespeare’s time, the ancient art form of heraldry is still alive and well today. Aficionados are continuing to find creative ways to enjoy their pastime. A few websites devote space to looking at the heraldry employed in Game of Thrones, studying Disney’s fictional McDuck family’s coat of arms, and generating heraldic representations of National Football League team logos. What I enjoy most, of course, is that birds can be seen on all of them!

Sources:

  1. Heck, C, Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. pp. 550–552.
  2. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 56.
  3. Ingersoll, E. p. 28.
  4. J. The Complete Guide to National Symbols and Emblems. Volume 1. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2010. pp. 120, 229, 928.
  5. Wilson, AN. “As the Bercows unveil their boastful coat of arms, the vulgar truth about family crests”, 11/30/2011. Daily Mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2068401/Speaker-John-Bercow-coat-arms-The-vulgar-truth-family-crests.html.
  6. Vinycomb, J. Fictitious & Symbolic Creatures in Art with Special Reference to their Use in British Heraldry. London: Chapman and Hall, Limited, 1906. pp. 186, 187, 189.
  7. “Famous Coats of Arms”. International Heraldry: http://www.internationalheraldry.com/famous.htm.
  8. “Famous Coats of Arms”. International Heraldry.
  9. Dingfelder, S. “A draft of Shakespeare’s coat of arms is on display for Folger Shakespeare Library’s ‘Symbols of Honor’”, 7/10/2014. The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/express/wp/2014/07/10/a-draft-of-shakespeares-coat-of-arms-is-on-display-at-folger-shakespeare-librarys-symbols-of-honor/.
  10. Duncan-Jones, K. Shakespeare: Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan: 1592-1623. London: A & C Black, 2011. p. 107.

So this Artist and a Cormorant Walk into a Bar

Toulouse

It seems like the opening to a joke. An artist shuffles into a French establishment with his leashed cormorant. After a day of fishing, the diminutive man and his odd pet make their way to a nearby table to share a drink.

But there’s no punch line. Turns out this is actually a true story. Not only did the famous late-nineteenth-century painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec own several tamed cormorants; the birds were also his fishing buddies (1). And he occasionally led one of the creatures into a café with him. There the post-impressionist artist and “Tom” would indulge in absinthe (2). “It has developed a taste for the stuff,” Toulouse-Lautrec supposedly told a friend. “It takes after me.” (3) Not surprisingly, the avant-garde artist renowned today for his Moulin Rouge posters, passed away relatively early in life, suffering from alcoholism, syphilis, and mental illness.

Apparently, Toulouse-Lautrec was fascinated with a centuries-old tradition of training cormorants to snatch then regurgitate their catches. This practice is still conducted in several parts of the world, particularly in Japan where the form is known as ukai (4). Influenced by such methods, the flamboyant illustrator acquired a number of these birds, using them toward this end. He also featured one of the cormorants, along with a crab, in a painting. As Julia Fry notes in the biography Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life, “The cormorant [in this piece] was no doubt one of [the artist’s] own hunting birds, for … the study clearly shows the ring placed around the bird’s neck to prevent its swallowing of prey.” (5)

Creative Geniuses—for the Birds?

While many odd connections exist between the famous and the feathered, none of them top Toulouse-Lautrec’s absinthe-drinking cormorant. However, John Barrymore’s pet comes close. The American stage actor and grandfather of movie actress Drew Barrymore collected exotic animals. One of these included a hissing vulture named “Maloney” that habitually preened the thespian’s mustache (6). What stories that must have made for Hollywood gossip magazines! In all seriousness, let’s hope the bird, after feeding on a carcass, didn’t go anywhere near its owner’s mouth.

Throughout their lives, both Barrymore and Toulouse-Lautrec had many pet birds. For creative types, such affinities were not that unusual. Quite a few larger-than-life historical personalities surrounded themselves with exotic animals. For instance, a menagerie belonging to the British Romantic poet Lord Byron included an eagle, a falcon, a crane, and some peacocks (7). Among Frida Kahlo’s feathered friends, the Mexican artist counted an eagle and numerous parrots, such as her beloved “Bonito” (8). Also, Pablo Picasso enjoyed the company of winged pets; he is said to have kept an owl, canaries, pigeons, and doves (9).

Some writers willingly shared their limelight with pet birds. Charles Dickens’s talking raven “Grip” shaped several notable works of nineteenth-century literature. Fashioned into an avian character within the Victorian author’s novel Barnaby Rudge, the bird soon went on to inspire one of the most popular poems of all time—Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” However, rather than repeating “Nevermore,” Dickens’s corvid chatted, “Halloa old girl!” (10) Ages ago, the ancient Roman writers Catullus and Ovid wrote poems concerning the deaths of their lovers’ pet birds. In the case of the former, a sparrow, and the latter, a parrot (11, 12). Clearly, even back then people were forming impressive emotional bonds with their feathered friends.

Say What?

Death is an inevitable part of life, pet birds without exception. Some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s cormorants, like their artist-owner, came to unfortunate ends. One bird was shot, and another died from throat blockage caused by an eel (13). Although I’m not certain whether any elaborate rites were held for his deceased pets; such instances are not without precedent. According to Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (Book 10, Chapters 122-123), a large procession turned out for the funeral of a talking pet raven, a favorite of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (14, 15). Also, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lamented the passing of his pet starling with a poem and a small ceremonial gathering (16).

Unlike Mozart’s starling, which could trill a portion of the maestro’s Concerto in G Major, U.S. President Andrew Jackson’s African grey parrot possessed a rather unpleasant talent. “Poll,” who outlived its master, loved to spout obscenities. The poor bird even disrupted Jackson’s funeral with several profane outbursts, forcing its eventual removal from the service (17).

I guess you could say that attendants of Toulouse-Lautrec’s funeral, especially his pious mother, were fortunate in this regard. Cormorants can’t mimic human language. Nonetheless, thanks to his café escapades decades ago, “Tom” still gives us plenty to talk about today.

Sources:

  1. Frey, J. Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc. pp. 274, 344, 371.
  2. King, RJ. The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press, University Press of New England, 2013. pp. 12-13.
  3. Frey, J. p. 274.
  4. King, RJ. pp. 5-6.
  5. Frey, J. p. 371.
  6. Williams, P. “The Tallest Trophy,” 4/20/15. The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/04/20/the-tallest-trophy.
  7. Jenner, G, McFarnon, E. “Anne Boleyn’s lapdog and John Quincy Adams’s alligator: 10 famous people in history and their bizarre pets,” 2/13/2014. History Extra: http://www.historyextra.com/feature/anne-boleyn%E2%80%99s-lapdog-john-quincy-adams%E2%80%99s-alligator-famous-people-history-and-their-bizarre-pets.
  8. Boehrer, BT. Parrot Culture: Our 2500-Year-Long Fascination with the World’s Most Talkative Bird. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. pp. 135-137.
  9. Morris, D. Owl. London: Reakton Books Ltd., 2009. p. 128.
  10. Lane, RM. “Charles Dickens bicentennial, and his link to Poe,” 1/13/2012. The Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/charles-dickens-bicentennial-and-his-link-to-poe/2012/01/03/gIQA8VwdwP_story.html.
  11. Lazenby, FD. “Greek and Roman Household Pets,” The Classical Journal. Vol. 44, No. 4 (Jan. 1949). pp. 245‑252 & Vol. 44, No. 4 (Feb. 1949). pp. 299‑307. Online via University of Chicago: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/CJ/44/4/Household_Pets*.html.
  12. Boehrer, BT. pp. 17-18.
  13. Frey, J. pp. 480, 274.
  14. Lazenby, FD.
  15. Boehrer, BT. p. 13
  16. West, MJ., and King, AP., “Mozart’s Starling,” American Scientist, Vol. 78, No. 2 (Mar. 1990): pp. 106-14. Online via Indiana University: http://www.indiana.edu/~aviary/Research/Mozart%27s%20Starling.pdf.
  17. Boehrer, BT. pp. 112-113.