Sunday, April 8, 2012

Birds in Christian Symbolism

Fra Fillipo Lippi, Madonna in the Forest

Since I have recently been browsing some books on symbolism, looking for anything about birds, I was inspired to do a special Easter edition of Bird Ephemera by sharing some of the historical Christian bird associations. Art history, world religions, folklore and symbolism--these are all such fascinating topics, ones that have appealed to me even before I began birding, and they are all so large that I never seem to do much more than dabble in them. But preparing this post did make me want to visit an art museum sometime soon. That is one drawback about living so far away from any major cities. Oh well.

Probably the most familiar Christian symbol is that of the dove, which often represents the Holy Spirit. In the Bible, John the Baptist saw "the Spirit of God descending like a dove," which may be the foundation for the association. More generally, doves represent purity, peace, love and hope.

Fra Fillipo Lippi, "Annunciation"

The dove is also featured in the Old Testament, such as in the story of Noah's Ark. After ten months of traveling on the waters, Noah released a dove and a raven to check for land. The raven wandered off, but the dove returned with an olive leaf in her beak.

Mosaic from the Church S. Marco, Basilica, Venice, Italy

Obviously, the dove comes off a lot better in that account than the raven, and crows and ravens, battlefield scavengers and carrion eaters, often have a bad rap in Western symbolism. But not always. In Jerome's Vitae Patrum, we learn the tale of the Coptic Paul of Thebes, also known as Saint Paul the First Hermit or Saint Paul the Anchorite. The legend has it that Paul, the first Christian hermit, fled to the desert to avoid persecution by Decius and Valerianus around 250 A.D., and was fed by a crow or raven, who brought him half a loaf of bread each day.

Velasquez, "Saint Paul and Saint Anthony"

Another bird whose associations are rife with symbolism is the eagle. Amongst many other symbols, the eagle represents Saint John, as it was one of the four creatures seen by Ezekiel in his vision, which were said to represent the four Evangelists.

Raphael, "Ezekiel's Vision"

The pelican is another bird with Christian symbolism. In the Middle Ages, people thought that pelicans would stab their own chests and let their young feed on their blood if food was scarce. The bird thus became associated with the sacrifice of Christ, and images of pelicans wounding, or "vulning," themselves is a common decoration in old churches.

Stained glass, "Pelican in its Piety"

Although pelicans don't really do that, I have always found these images to be especially powerful. Perhaps there is something to the idea of Carl Jung's collective unconscious, that an image from centuries before my time moves me so strongly. Or maybe I just really like pelicans.

One image that is quite prevalent in Renaissance art is the European goldfinch. (BirdLife International reports that an ornithologist, Herbert Friedmann, studied 486 devotional paintings by 254 artists that contained the symbol of a goldfinch, 214 of which were by Italian artists.

Goldfinches were commonly kept as caged birds for children's pets, but that alone cannot explain why the bird so often turns up in pictures of Christ child.

Giovanni Tiepolo, "Madonna of the Goldfinch"

The goldfinch was said to represent the Passion, although I have encountered conflicting interpretations of how that came to be. One stated that the association came about because of the thistle seeds it eats, another said that the finch was supposed to pluck a thorn from Christ's head during the crucifixion, thus acquiring the red spot on its feathers.

Raphael, "Madonna of the Goldfinch"
The summary by BirdLife International simply states that the goldfinch symbolizes "variously the soul, resurrection, sacrifice and death."

I have kept my text to a minimum here to let this wonderful artwork speak for itself. In the meantime, if any art historians would like to chime in, I would love to hear from you!


  1. What beautiful works of art! I keep meaning to order a book such as, "Our Christian Symbols", by Friedrich Rest; I think it's a fascinating subject. I especially like Fra Fillipo Lippi's "Madonna of the Forest", and Raphael's "Madonna and the Goldfinch." I never knew that, about the goldfinch representing the Passion. Sure wish I could go to a museum, too! Mom


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