07 March 2011

L'Oiseau Nouveau

Long before the peacock became the oiseau nouveau of late 19th century Symbolist art, it was a source of  as many symbolic meanings as images.   Like so many objects that fascinate us, the symbols overlap and sometimes contradict.
The ancient Egyptians may have gotten in the first word - at least on the record.  They regarded the "eye" of the feather as an all-seeing and potentially evil spirit.  In ancient Ethiopia, pictures of the royal bird, although identified as ostriches, look like peacocks instead.
The Greeks dedicated the peacock to the goddess Juno, finding in the bird's golden circles an echo of her kingdom of stars and sky.
Pythagoras claimed the peacock as the reincarnation of the soul of the epic-maker Homer.  Later, the Christian mystic Augustine wrote that peacocks are a symbol of resurrection.
The peacock has the ability to eat serpents without any harm, leading the early Christians to believe  that peacock blood could dispel evil spirits.  They also believed that a pair of peacocks stand guard outside the gates of Paradise.  In contrast,  Byzantine tales asserted that peacocks had resided in paradise until expelled along with Adam and Eve.  Also, because the birds renew their feathers in the spring, they easily came to represent renewal. 

In the Orthodox view, an earthly paradise exists; thus the custom of the wealthy to have peacocks roam freely in their gardens.
Alchemists believed that the shimmer ing tail feathers of the peacock could transmute poisonous venom into solar radiance.  Peacock feathers were also believed to protect the person who wore them from witches.  In The Vows of the Peacock (c. 1312), Jacques de Longuyon made them part of the chivalric code of medieval times.
The peacock was a symbol of immortality among ancient civilizations whose peoples  believed that peacock flesh  did not decay after death.   As a corollary, the peacock  replaces its feathers annually, a visual symbol of renewal.

1. Chinese insignia, late 18th or early 19th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. 2 Carl Schmidt for Rookwood Pottery - vase, 1925, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
3. William French de Morgan - plate, c. 1855, Musee D'Orsay, Paris.
4. Japanese plate, Musee Guimet, Paris.
5Japanese inro, Musee Guimet, Paris.
6 Rene Lalique - pendant with gold, pearls, opals, diamonds, and enamel, 1901, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
7. Habib Allah - Concourse of the Birds, c. 1600, Metropolitan Museum of art, NYC.
8. Tunisian Ceramic Tile - early 20th century, Musee d'Art et d"Histoire du Judaisme, Paris.
9. Camille Martin - poster for Exposition of Decorative Arts, c.1900, Musee de Nancy.
10. Josef Maria Auchentaller - woman and peacock, Leopold Museum, Vienna.
11. Walter J. Morgan - Peacocks in a garden, late 19th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
Suggested reading:  A Dictionary of Symbols by J(uan)  E(duardo) Cirlot, 1962.


Rouchswalwe said...

Oh, that brings to mind the wonderful song sung by Chava Alberstein: Di golden Pave (the golden Peacock). Here it is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLP3coxh2QU
My favorite line is "... and the night has opened its golden eyes."

Jane said...

Rouchswalwe, I had not heard the song before. Thanks for the link. There are so many peacock images that I bet they outnumber the actual birds!