Easter Eggs: Their Colorful History and Symbolism

eastereggs

This is the time of year for egg hunts, Cadbury Crème Eggs, and multicolored plastic eggs filled with jellybeans. Yet beyond the dye, chocolate, and sugar, a deeper meaning lies in one of Easter’s most cherished traditions.

No scriptural basis of course exists for having Easter eggs, just as no accounts in the Gospels report that several winged favorites tended to Jesus during the Crucifixion (e.g., a swallow pulling at the crown thorns and a red crossbill at the nails).1 However, the impulse to incorporate birds with an important event and their eggs with a major recurring holiday seems natural enough. After all, the dove is a symbol for the Holy Spirit and for Christianity as a whole. Why wouldn’t birds have a role in Easter? Also, birds in general are much loved, and eggs hatch to create more birds.

Overall, many factors are crucial to the Easter egg tradition, and these include associations with the time of year in which the holiday falls, social and religious developments arising from Lent many centuries ago, and even the possible assimilation of earlier non-Christian customs.

The Egg as Symbol

Always celebrated on the first vernal Sunday following a full moon, Easter has an apparent connection with spring. Since this is the season when migrating birds are returning and mating, the holiday’s association with eggs is not surprising. Besides the many nests potentially visible this time of year, eggs also share some similarities in shape and color to the moon. However, despite the satellite’s role in determining Easter’s annual date, any lunar connection to Easter eggs is probably marginal at best. The egg’s popularity rests primarily as a potent symbol of life. In the case of Easter, it represents Jesus’s Resurrection2 and the potential of eternal life for his followers.

Throughout the world, from antiquity to today, eggs traditionally have signified birth/creation and rebirth/revival.3 They have served this function in several creation myths, as well as in funeral practices, both as iconography and as objects buried in human graves.4, 5 As a result of practices centuries ago, Islamic mosques and some Christian churches still hang preserved eggs from ostriches as decorations.6 The Montefeltro altarpiece painting by Italian Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca famously depicts such an egg above Madonna and child.7 The most extravagant examples of egg-inspired art came several centuries later when Peter Carl Fabergé created his ornate Easter egg designs for the Russian imperial family.

The symbolic power of the egg extends to its use as a ceremonial food by Christians and non-Christians alike. A hard-boiled egg is part of the Jewish Passover Seder. The custom of decorating eggs, which originated in ancient Persia, survives today in Iranian New Year (vernal equinox) celebrations.8 In addition, the elaborate beeswax-resist designs (e.g., pysanky, kraslice) of Eastern Europe’s Slavic peoples may have predated their conversion to Christianity.9 By the thirteenth10 or fourteenth centuries,11 Christians in Europe began coloring eggs for Easter using red dye to symbolize Christ’s blood.12 Whether this practice involved outside influences is not necessarily important to appreciate and enjoy Easter eggs today, for any religion can absorb preexisting customs and imbue them with new meaning.

The Influence of Lent

At least in part, the painting of Easter eggs more than seven hundred years ago appears to have developed in response to Lenten restrictions and farmyard realities.13, 14 Eggs were among the foods regularly given up during the fasting period, but those laid by domesticated chickens and geese could be collected and decorated. With the arrival of Easter Sunday, the eggs were eaten to mark the end of the fast and celebrate the holiday.15

By the early 1800s, chocolate versions of these eggs debuted in Western Europe.16, 17 Playing off of this Easter candy theme, the American confections company Just Born took the next step, popularizing its marshmallow-shaped chicks—called Peeps—back in the 1950s.18 So today, along with chocolate egg-shaped candies, we have all sorts of bird-inspired Easter candy.

Sources:

  1. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. pp. 112–115.
  2. History.com. “Easter Symbols and Traditions.” History.com: http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/easter-symbols.
  3. Killgrove, K. “The Curious History of Easter Eggs from Birth to Burial,” 3/26/2016. Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2016/03/26/the-curious-history-of-easter-eggs-from-birth-to-burial/#6ebea03a16af.
  4. Killgrove, K.
  5. Green, N. “Ostrich Eggs and Peacock Feathers: Sacred Objects as Cultural Exchange between Christianity and Islam”. Al-Masaq, Volume 18: No. 1, March 2006. p. 30.
  6. Green, N. pp. 35–39.
  7. Green, N. p. 36.
  8. Killgrove, K.
  9. Lesiv, M. The Return of Ancestral Gods: Modern Ukrainian Paganism as an Alternative Vision for a Nation. Montreal, CA: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013. pp. 126–133.
  10. History.com.
  11. Green, N. p. 36.
  12. D’Costa, K. “Beyond Ishtar: The Tradition of Eggs at Easter,” 3/31/2013. Scientific American: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/beyond-ishtar-the-tradition-of-eggs-at-easter/.
  13. McRoy, A. “How the Fast of Lent Gave Us Easter Eggs,” 2/2010. Christianity Today: http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2010/february/how-fast-of-lent-gave-us-easter-eggs.html.
  14. D’Costa.
  15. McRoy, A.
  16. Godiva Chocolate. “The History of Chocolate Easter Eggs.” Godiva Chocolate, Inc.: http://www.godivachocolates.co.uk/The+History+of+Chocolate+Easter+Eggs.html.
  17. BBC Newsround: “Why do we have Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny?” 3/27/2016. BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/17597617.
  18. History.com.
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Wheel of Birds and Religions

Mandela

Finally finished! The series of posts on the fine and feathered in religions is now complete. To celebrate, here’s the full-view mandala. Each panel represents one of the following:

To see any of the posts, please click on the hyperlinked text (not the image).

Many thanks to everyone who has been reading this summer. Also, I am especially grateful to my wife for the beautiful illustrations. More of her artwork and blog posts are available at Red Newt Gallery. Have a wonderful week!

Birds in Christianity, from the Obvious to the Unusual

christianBird_JML

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.

Summary

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.

Sources:

  1. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. pp. 112-115.
  2. Ingersoll, E. pp. 28-34.
  3. “Seagull Monument, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA”, Mormon Historic Sites Foundation: http://mormonhistoricsites.org/seagull-monument/.
  4. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. p. 144.
  5. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 56.
  6. Ingersoll, E. p. 113.
  7. Ingersoll, E. pp. 196-198.
  8. Heck, C. pp.44, 477-478.
  9. 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.
  10. Heaney, S.J. “St. Kevin and the Blackbird”, The Poetry Archive: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/st-kevin-and-blackbird.
  11. Williams, G.M. Handbook of Hindu Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. p. 160.
  12. Longfellow, H.W. “The Sermon of St. Francis” (http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=232).
  13. 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.

The Fair and Feathered in Fine Art

GoldfinchArt_JMLandin

What’s the relationship between the goldfinch and Christian art? What birds are commonly portrayed as pets in paintings by famous artists? And how do artistic renderings of our winged neighbors differ by time period and place? This week’s post will look at these questions and a few other related topics.

There are, of course, many aspects to consider when examining birds in art, most of which will have to be included at a later time. After all, this is a large subject, and birds have fascinated artists for a long time. Depictions of our winged neighbors exist in prehistoric cave paintings, inside burial chambers and ancient temples, within illustrated manuscripts such as bestiaries, and most frequently as awe-inspiring pieces for wealthy patrons and museums. By looking at a small sample of masterpieces from just the past thousand years, we can easily see how birds bless us with their beauty, provide us with a sense of communion with nature, and evoke feelings that extend well beyond their physical form.

When Faith Met the Goldfinch

The old adage goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Obviously, paintings communicate a great deal of information to the viewer. And symbolism is one of the most powerful means at an artist’s disposal, quite evident in the depictions of certain birds. Take for example the popularity of the European goldfinch. Ornithologist Herbert Friedmann, in his book The Symbolic Goldfinch, notes that the bird’s image occurs in more than 480 paintings of the late medieval period and Renaissance (1, 2, 3). As famously rendered in paintings attributed to Raphael (Madonna del cardellino), Leonardo da Vinci (Madonna Litta), and many others, the bird is a frequent fixture in compositions featuring the young Christ child with his mother Mary. But why?

What does a goldfinch, a bird with no direct Biblical references, have to do with Christianity? Could the reason lie with special meaning that particular bird had at that time to those artists, their patrons, and their viewers? In fact, religious belief and social circumstances were quite critical aspects of European life around 1500. And both, as Mark Cocker explains in Birds & People, affected how the goldfinch came to be seen, in essence, as an allegorical representation of Jesus. For starters, folklore already linked the red markings on the bird’s head to the crown of thorns placed upon Christ during the Passion. But, like Jesus, the bird was thought, too, to be a physician of sorts.

Cocker notes that this is because the goldfinch was one of the avian candidates for the mythical charadrius, sometimes referred to as charadrios (4) or caladrius (5, 6). According to ancient sources, such a bird reportedly possessed the ability to heal the sick by staring back into their eyes. Various candidates have been named for these mysterious creatures, including bitterns, curlews, gulls, and plovers. Although the bird is described as having white feathers, in several instances it is said to be yellow or golden (7). The latter, of course, would lead to associations with the goldfinch, as would other forces.

The Black Death was a prevalent and destructive force in 14th– and 15th-century Europe. Since nothing seemed to halt the disease, belief in the charadrius took on a new and desperate role, existing in the form of a religious image. “A dominant feature of the age”, Cocker reminds us, “was the recurrent nightmare of plague, and by incorporating European Goldfinches into paintings the artists were invoking the curative powers of the charadrios on behalf of their contemporary audience.” Thus, the bird, quite popular throughout Europe, became a kind of “visual good-luck charm” (8).

Pet Subjects

Due in part to its popularity as a pet, the goldfinch was also portrayed in several famous paintings without any overt religious connections. Francisco De Goya’s 18th-century painting Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga (9), for instance, depicts the birds within a cage, while a tethered magpie and several cats are positioned curiously nearby. Approximately a century earlier, Abraham Mignon’s Fruit Still-Life with Squirrel and Goldfinch (10) illustrates the goldfinch pulling a small container of sustenance up towards itself, something these birds can actually be trained to do (11). And then there’s Carel Fabritius’ 1654 painting The Goldfinch, which like Mignon’s piece, portrays the bird chained by one of its legs. The Fabritius work (12), of course, may be the most recognizable artistic rendering of this bird today, thanks in part to how it features prominently in Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Though the goldfinch clearly has a special place in European art, it is but one of many birds to attract considerable attention from painters. Parrots are another favorite, included in Western works ranging from Peter Paul Rubens’ The Holy Family with Parrot to several of Frida Kahlo’s still-life paintings and self-portraits with her pet birds, such as Yo y Mis Pericos (“Me and My Parrots”) (13). These exotic birds are associated with a wide variety of characteristics, but typically represent beauty and sensuality. Of course, members within the parrot or psittacidae family appear as well in art from many parts of the world, such as Chinese emperor Zhao Ji’s 12th-century handscroll Five-Colored Parakeet (14) and the vibrant 16th-century manuscript illustrations accompanying Central Asia’s Tuti-Nama (“Tales of the Parrot”) (15).

So Many Birds, So Many Styles

In the Far East, illustrations of birds frequently appear on hanging scrolls, handscrolls, screen panels, and fans. Besides parrots, widespread avian subjects consisted of cranes, peacocks, swallows, and crows. Quian Xuan’s 13th-century Return of Swallows, Bian Jinzhao’s 15th-century Three Friends and a Hundred Birds, and Gao Qifeng’s 20th-century Peacock Spreading Tail (16) are several Chinese examples.

Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, internationally renowned today for his woodblock print series Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji, also included birds in his works, such as Cranes on a Snowy Pine, Willow and Birds, and Hydrangea and Swallow (17). Several of Hokusai’s contemporaries, such as Maruyama Okyo and Shibata Zeshin, produced memorable paintings featuring crows, birds that are also part of Western masterpieces like Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow, Pablo Picasso’s Woman and a Crow, and what is likely Vincent van Gogh’s last work, Wheatfield with Crows—though, Cocker offers details that suggest that the latter’s subject matter may instead be rooks (18).

Over the past two hundred years, artistic depictions of birds have become much more varied in style. Some works, such as Salvador Dali’s 1949 painting Leda Atomica, reinterpret a popular, recurring theme in literature and art, in this case the “Leda and the Swan” myth. Dali’s swan is rendered in near-realistic detail, an aspect quite unusual for much of 20th-century Western fine art.

More, however, can often be stated with less. This, for instance, is the case with Henri Matisse’s 1947 Les Oiseaux (“The Birds”). The painting’s beauty clearly lies in its simplicity, as white, dove-like shapes flutter on a field of blue sky. The same holds true with Paul Klee’s 1922 Twittering Machine (19), but with different results. Whereas Matisse, I think, evokes a warm sense of child-like innocence with his painting, Klee’s simple lines illustrating mechanical birds perched on a crankshaft create a rather unsettling effect, his work a possible symbolic statement on humankind’s naïve subjugation of nature.

A Variety of Tastes for the Palette

A multitude of other styles are available for fans of bird art. The late Charley Harper’s “minimal realism”, for example, renders subjects into colorful, geometric shapes. Some of his most famous pieces feature the northern cardinal, such as the 1969 painting A Good World, and the 1988 work A Day in Eden (20). And then there’s Picasso’s 1911 Cubist masterpiece Le pigeon aux petits pois (“The Pigeon with the Peas”) (21), which employs numerous dynamic sweeps and angles—providing complex but non-naturalistic perspectives of its avian subject. The work is a drastic departure of the more lifelike depictions of birds in the paintings of Picasso’s father and instructor Don José Ruiz y Blasco.

Many artists, especially those who also doubled as naturalists, wanted to portray avian species as realistically as possible in the subjects’ natural habitat. John James Audubon’s 19th-century The Birds of America remains the most celebrated of such works. Of course, naturalistic painting is alive and well today. But it’s just one among many styles in which we humans seek to connect with our winged neighbors.

Sources:

  1. Friedmann, H. The Symbolic Goldfinch. New York: Pantheon, 1946. pp. 4-5.
  2. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. pp. 500-501.
  3. “The Goldfinch in Renaissance art.” Presented as part of the BirdLife State of the world’s birds website, 2008. BirdLife International: http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/sowb/casestudy/95.
  4. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. pp. 501-502.
  5. Druce, G.C. “The Caladrius and Its Legend, Sculptured upon the Twelfth-Century Doorway of Alne Church, Yorkshire”. Archaeology Journal, 1913. Vol. 69: pp. 380-416.
  6. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. p. 188.
  7. Druce, G.C.
  8. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 502.
  9. “Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga (1784–1792)”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/49.7.41.
  10. “Abraham Mignon – Fruit Still-Life with Squirrel and Goldfinch”, Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abraham_Mignon_-_Fruit_Still-Life_with_Squirrel_and_Goldfinch_-_WGA15666.jpg.
  11. Birkhead, T. The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2008. p. 105.
  12. “The Goldfinch”, The Frick Collection: http://www.frick.org/exhibitions/mauritshuis/605.
  13. “Yo Y Mis Pericos”, The Frida Kahlo Foundation: http://www.frida-kahlo-foundation.org/Yo-Y-Mis-Pericos.html.
  14. “Bird Painting”, China Online Museum: http://www.chinaonlinemuseum.com/painting-birds.php.
  15. “Parrot addressing Khojasta in Tutinama commisioned by Akbar”, Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Parrot_addressing_Khojasta_in_Tutinama_commisioned_by_Akbar,_c1556-1565.jpg.
  16. “Bird Painting”, China Online Museum.
  17. Katsushika Hokusai: The Complete Works: http://www.katsushikahokusai.org.
  18. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. pp. 388-390.
  19. “Twittering Machine” (Die Zwitscher-Maschine), The Museum of Modern Art, New York: http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=37347.
  20. Harper Originals, Estate of Charley Harper: http://www.harperoriginals.com/charleys-originals/.
  21. “£430m of paintings stolen in Paris”, The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/pound430m-of-paintings-stolen-in-paris-1978312.html?action=gallery&ino=2.

‘V’ is for Vulture—and Virgin Birth, too

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Giving birth without conception is usually considered a miraculous affair. However, according to encyclopedia-like manuscripts of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, such acts were not that extraordinary for vultures.

Back then, female vultures were supposedly capable of producing offspring without sexual relations. In some situations, the wind was believed to impregnate the female (1, 2). What’s more, one ancient text even states that a pregnant vulture can obtain a special stone that, by her sitting on it, will free her from pain while she goes about laying her eggs (3).

Mary and the Vulture, Jesus and the Pelican

Fascinating stories like the ones above emerged in the bestiary collections of late medieval Europe. These manuscripts, consisting of illustrations, notes, scriptural citations, and commentaries on numerous creatures, drew upon earlier sources, most notably Physiologus, an ancient text likely composed in 2nd-century Egypt (4). Other classics, such as Herodotus’s The History, Pliny’s Natural History, Aelian’s History of the Animals, and the writings of Church Fathers, including St. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies and St. Ambrose of Milan’s Hexameron, also offered ample material (5, 6).

Bestiary authors featured all types of animals—and many kinds of fowl—relating them to Christian themes. As is the case with animals like the dragon and unicorn, some of the avian entries, namely the phoenix, cinnamolgus (cinnamon bird), and charadrius, are mythical. However, most of the listings describe real subjects, such as the aforementioned vulture—but attached to erroneous information. Although detailed observations clearly did not inform the accounts, medieval readers didn’t seem to mind. First, most of the people at the time were likely unaware that the descriptions were inaccurate. Second and most importantly, these folks were consulting the text primarily for spiritual inspiration and ethical guidance. “Concerning the natural world, bestiaries were never intended to be scientific; instead the entries were moralizing and religious allegories,” states Jenneka Janzen of Universiteit Leiden in the Netherlands (7).

Several accounts provide what for modern audiences must seem like unfamiliar, if not strangely tenuous, examples of religious symbolism. For instance, the female vulture in many bestiaries not only represents chastity, but the bird—due to the fantastical belief noted earlier—is also connected with the Virgin Mary (8, 9). The pairing, at first glance seems rather odd, but probably not any stranger than that of Christ with the pelican. The reason behind the latter’s association is due to another specious notion. Apparently, blood from a pelican’s wound was once believed capable of reviving the bird’s offspring. Ornithologist Peter Tate does offer a sensible explanation for such a bizarre belief: “Parent pelicans feed their young macerated food from the large pouch under their bill. Early observers clearly thought that it was blood that was being transferred” (10). The mistaken belief in the pelican offering blood to revive its young led to its symbolic association to the atonement of the Crucifixion. Hence, in late medieval paintings (11, 12), the bird is sometimes depicted nesting on or near Jesus’s cross.

Reborn Eagles, Vigilant Cranes

Since bestiaries and their earlier sources were far from factually sound, the texts propagated lots of rather peculiar ideas. For instance, eagles were thought to be emblematic of spiritual rebirth and baptism, for people centuries ago believed that when one of these birds advanced in age, it would soar as far possible towards the sun to sear away the cataracts from its eyes and burn away the remaining plumage from its body. The fiery raptor would then plummet into a spring or lake where it would again rise, as if from some magical fountain of youth, emerging as a renewed version of itself (13, 14). What an amazing but truly fantastical idea! If such a notion were true, of course, reproduction would not be necessary for eagles to survive.

Other accounts avoid reproductive matters altogether, praising a creature for embodying a particular virtue. For instance, the crane, noted for its vigilance, was cited metaphorically as a friend who assists by watching out for others, particularly against the stealthy advances of sin. How did this odd idea take root? Well, before drifting to sleep, a group of these birds were said to designate one of their members as a lookout. To safeguard itself from napping while on duty, the lookout supposedly hoisted a stone in one of its feet. That way, if the crane nodded off, the small rock would fall, thumping the ground and rousing the bird back to attention (15). This story, unlike so many in bestiaries, does have a ring of truth to it. Cranes indeed have the ability to sleep with one leg up; however, the part about sentries and clasped stones is not an accurate portrayal of crane behavior (16).

Overall, medieval writers penned bestiary entries to celebrate spiritual ideals, extol virtuous conduct, and condemn vice—not to provide true-to-experience, naturalistic reports. One today could excuse most of the erroneous descriptions, for the stories, just as they must have centuries ago, do appear to offer some memorable life lessons and religious instruction. And such accounts definitely make for some interesting reading.

Next week’s post will continue to look at the symbolic significance of birds on our culture, but we will move out of the Dark Ages. Instead we’ll focus on the spiritually uplifting effects of birds in general on modern society.

Sources:

  1. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2004. p. 425.
  2. Biedermann, H. Dictionary of Symbolism. Hulbert, J. (Translator). New York: Facts on File, 1989 (1992). p. 370.
  3. Curley, M.J. (Translator). Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. p. 48.
  4. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. p. 81.
  5. Curley, M.J. pp. xxi, xxix of introduction.
  6. Janzen, J. “Where the Wild Things Are: The Medieval Bestiary”, 8/16/2013. Turning Over a New Leaf: Manuscript Innovation in the Twelfth Century. Institute for Cultural Disciplines at Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands: http://medievalfragments.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/where-the-wild-things-are-the-medieval-bestiary/.
  7. Janzen, J.
  8. Werness, H.B.
  9. Biedermann, H.
  10. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p. 105.
  11. Collections: “Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saints John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene”. Philadelphia Museum of Art: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/102733.html.
  12. Rosasco, B. “Recent Acquisition: Crucifixion by Jacopo del Casentino”, Princeton University Art Museum: http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/story/recent-acquisition-crucifixion-jacopo-del-casentino.
  13. Curley, M.J. p. 12.
  14. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. p. 141.
  15. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. p. 354.
  16. Johnsgard, P.A. Cranes of the World. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1983; electronic edition: Lincoln, Nebraska, 2008. p. 72.