venerdì 23 gennaio 2015

Birds as symbols in the art

Symbols in the arts have always fascinated me. Looking to paintings, frescoes and mosaics every day I discovered some of the secret meanings behind the animals represented.

The animal appearing more often in the art is the bird. There are many different species of birds frescoed, painted on wooden panels and even sculpted. Let's discover what do they really represent and what do they usually refer to, in particular in Christian art in Florence.

The Dove  

The dove in Christianity represents the Holy Spirit, as well as the concepts of pureness and peace,  given its white color and its quiet temperament. 

Masaccio, Holy Trinity 1426-28, (particular of the dove) fresco in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

This animal is mentioned many times in the Bible. The first time is in the Genesis, when Noah sent a dove out of the arch to see if the situation outside. The dove came back with a branch of an olive tree and he understood that the water was retreated. For this reason the dove has been interpreted as the symbol of peace between God and Mankind after the Great Flood. The dove is the quietest and mildest of the birds, it is fast and reassuring so it can be considered a perfect messenger of peace.

Another important episode of the life of Jesus where the dove appears is in the occasion of his baptism. The Evangelists John and Matthew both writing about the Baptism of Christ describe the holy spirit under the shapes of a holy dove descending on his head. 

Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, The Baptism of Christ, 1476-78, Uffizi Gallery

The third significant episode is the Announciation, a key topic in Christian art in general and in Marian art. This is the celebration of the announcement by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus, the son of God, through the incarnation of the Holy spirit. 

Also in this particular subject, the holy dove represents the holy spirit, often painted above the head of the Virgin or in between the kneeling angel Gabriel and Mary.

Simone Martini, Announciation, 1333 Uffizi Gallery Florence, 

The Eagle

The eagle is the king of the birds, it can fly higher than any other birds, its eyes can look directly into the sun. Its ability to fly high is a metaphor of spiritual elevation, also this bird usually brings its children high to teach them how to fly, another metaphor of Christ as a leader to the human souls to God. 
Its sense of view is considered a sign of wisdom and smartness, and its ability to kill snakes often simbolizes the victory of good against the evil.
The Eagle is in the arts the symbol of Saint John the Evangelist, maybe because he is the one amongst the four, who had the most spiritual experience in writing his gospel.

Luca della Robbia, Saint John the Evangelist 1442-45, glazed terracotta, Pazzi Chapel, Church of Santa Croce, Florence

The Pellican 

This bird is ofter represented on the top of Middle Age crucifixes. This is a wird image to be connected with this dramatic subject and the meaning is one of the most interesting and complicated. As many times happens, everything starts with an ancient legend, telling that children of this kind of bird looked very weak, almost like dead. 

The "father" of the small birds came back at the nest and felt guilty for his children, teared his chest with his beak and spread the blood on his children. At this point the legend says that the small birds came back to life. This story is interpreted as a metaphor of the sacrifice of Christ for humanity. He also spread his blood to save Mankind.

Pacino di Buonaguida, The tree of life, 1305-10, Accademia, Florence.
Pacino di Buonaguida, The tree of life, (particular of the pellican on the top of the tree)  1305-10, Accademia, Florence.
The peacock 

This is considered since Antiquity the most beautiful bird. Its colored feathers and the"wheel" that it makes with its tale surely made him the most elegant and magnificent of the birds. Its meat was considered healthy and able to heal ill people. An old popular legend says that its blood would have chased the devil. This is the reason why the peakok is sometimes in Betlem grotto in the paintings representing the nativity of Jesus.

Sandro Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi, 1475, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
The peacock is on the wall on the extreme right.

The peacock is also considered the symbol of incorruptibility. Its ability to change and renew its colored feather is a symbol of resurrection and renewal, this is why this animal is often represented in the Last supper frescoes.

Domenico del Ghirlandaio, The Last Supper 1486 ca, Convent of San Marco, Florence (the peacock is on the window on the right of the fresco)

The Goldfinch

The goldfinch with its red head, is often associated with the passion of Christ, and many times Baby Jesus himself holds in his hand this bird as to anticipate his future crucifixion. Sometimes this is also represented in the classic portraits of Mary and the Baby. 

Raphael, Mary of the goldfinch, 1506, Uffizi gallery, Florence.

This animal is again the subject of an ancient legend which says that during crucifixion it tried to free Jesus from the thornes crown and during this attempt his blood colored his head of red. For this reasons it often appears in religious paintings.

Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Giovanni dei Medici 1544-45, Uffizi Gallery

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