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  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

Birds as symbols in art.

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

Revised: 02/02.21

Birds are frequently used as symbols in art; to express human-animal connection; human hopes; spiritual beliefs; and wealth, power and colonialism, and latterly extinction. Their use as symbols can be seen in the earliest known art (the Lascaux Caves), and their use as symbols persists to the present moment.

"Birds are synonymous with flight, and as such are a potent symbol and embodiment of many of humanity’s hopes and dreams. They connote both the human and the divine spirit through their soaring freedom of movement, and their linking of earth and sky (often also water). Birds can represent our souls, or stand for wisdom and the power of thought. They have visual beauty, make music, hold the secrets of the universe (‘a little bird told me’); so of course we kill them — what else would you expect?" Andrew Lambirth, review of Painted, sculpted and stuffed: a history of the bird in art From Babylonian ducks to Norwich City canaries: Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery’s in The Spectator (12/07/14)

A bird and human-bird hybrid in the paintings of the Lascaux Caves, 16,000-14,000 BCE.

In the period when Neanderthals and Humans coexisted, visual representation emerged in sites in what is now southern France and northern Spain. At this point early humans coexisted with huge numbers of animals (horses, dear, elk, rhinoceros, bears and birds) and before writing, interaction with animals, or animal narratives, was reordered in images.

It is not possible to interpret what early humans meant by the bird, apparently on a stick, and the person with a bird head, but the combination of the bison, human-bird hybrid and bird seem to communicate a narrative, but clearly birds had significance to early humans.

(For more information on Lascaux see Dr. Mary Beth Looney Lascaux (article) | Khan Academy) Horus | Story, Appearance, & Facts | Britannica


As religions developed, provide narratives of origins and explanations of humans relationship to the world, birds formed part of symbolic explanations; Horus in the ancient Egyptian religion, "was god in the form of a falcon whose right eye was the sun or morning star, representing power and quintessence, and whose left eye was the moon or evening star, representing healing. Falcon cults, which were in evidence from late predynastic times, were widespread in Egypt". Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Horus". Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 May. 2020, Accessed 01/02/21.

A granite statue of the falcon god Horus at the Temple of Horus in Edfu, Egypt. In front of Horus stands a miniature depiction of Caesarion (Ptolemy XV), son of Cleopatra VII of Ptolemaic Egypt.

Statue_of_Horus_at_theTemple_of_Horus_Edfu_01_977.PNG: Ijanderson977derivative work: JMCC1, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Goldfinch in the Madonna and Child Enthroned, with Four Angels, altarpiece, Luca di Tommè, 1367

Image downloaded from the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge website

"The goldfinch that Christ holds in his left hand in Luca di Tommè’s altarpiece can be interpreted in a number of different ways that both humanise the child and emphasise his divinity.

Since ancient Egypt, the human soul had been represented in religious art by a small bird. We see the Ba (the soul bird) on a detail of an Egyptian coffin from the Fitzwilliam, left [E.1.1822]. A very general reading of the goldfinch might, therefore, remind the viewer that his soul is ‘in the hands’ of God.

The bird could also be seen as a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ. A non-biblical legend popular in the middle ages related how the child Jesus, when playing with some clay birds that his friends had given to him, bought them to life. Medieval theologians saw this as an allegory of his own coming back from the dead.

In another legend, when Christ was carrying the cross to Calvary a small bird – sometimes a goldfinch, sometimes a robin – flew down and plucked one of the thorns from the crown around his head. Some of Christ’s blood splashed onto the bird as it drew the thorn out, and to this day goldfinches and robins have spots of red on their plumage. Like the cross that Christ wears around his neck, therefore, the goldfinch might be read as a prefiguration of his Passion.

More specifically, and relevant to Luca di Tommè’s times, the goldfinch was seen as a protector against the plague. Since classical times superstition had credited a mythical bird – the charadrius – with the ability to take on the disease of any man who looked it in the eye.

... The charadrius was sometimes represented as a goldfinch. Along with his coral amulet, perhaps Christ’s finch offers the worshipper protection against the seemingly unstoppable contagion.

Lastly, it should be said that the goldfinch could simply represent a goldfinch. In the fourteenth century, it was common for young children to keep tame birds as pets. On the simplest level, Christ's holding a bird allows a parent or a child to recognise his human nature, to identify with him. Despite the angels and the celestial gold background, the viewer is reminded that God lived and died as a man upon the earth."

The Symbolism of Birds in Western Painting

"A preening peacock, a playful finch, a hovering dove, a scheming vulture, a clever crow, a robin, an osprey—all are charmingly decorative to the average viewer. For painters of the Gothic, Early Renaissance and High Renaissance eras, birds were part of a rich visual symbolism. In a culture of restricted literacy symbolic imagery was vital in helping to spiritually enlighten the rabble. Narrative paintings, with their layer upon layer of vivid symbolism, provided instruction to the uneducated peasants who craved scriptural guidance. Origen Adamantius, an early Christian theologian stated "If all things were made through Him, clearly so must the splendid revelations have been which were made to the fathers and prophets, and became to them the symbols of the sacred mysteries of religion."Paintings throughout Western history have been used as guides in illuminating the divine mysteries of Gods Holy Word. Birds of every variety are prominently featured in painting throughout Western art history.

Byzantine, Gothic and Early Renaissance paintings are rich in philosophical and Christian symbolism regarding birds.

The Finch symbolizes a winged soul returning to heaven.

The Peacock symbolizes the Resurrection, everlasting life and incorruptibility. It can also represent knightly vigilance and of Christian watchfulness. According to Anglo-Norman, Osmont, writes: "The eye-speckled feathers should warn a man that never too often can he have his eyes wide open, and gaze inwardly upon his own heart." A white peacock, symbolized marriage, and also narcissism, vanity and pride

The Pelican in Christian Art is an emblem of Jesus Christ, by “whose blood we are healed.” It is also a symbol of charity.

The Raven is a symbol of Saint Oswald who died in 992. He was born into a wealthy family but devoted his life to the poor. The raven can also symbolize death and illness. Saint Benedictis is sometimes symbolically represented by a raven or depicted with a raven.

The Sparrow shown near a window, perched on a ledge, flying in a window, flying outside a window or perched on a branch outside a window, represents the soul of a recently deceased loved one. A caged sparrow symbolizes impeding death.

Goose or Geese symbolizes simplicity, home, a selfless soul. Geese are the emblem of Saint Cerbonius.

TheCrow is a symbol of adultery and or wicked thoughts when shown next to married couple, sometimes perched near the bed chamber or nesting on a small pillow in the background. The Crow or Raven also signifies the devils henchmen are close at hand when portrayed next to a holy figure. If the Crow is carrying a silver coin, silver ring or sliver medal it symbolizes Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve apostles and betrayer of Christ.

The Dove a white dove hovering above a religious figure represents the Holy Spirit. The dove can represent a divine messenger, peace and innocence. it also symbolizes the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity as well as. Seven white doves symbolize the seven spirits of Holy Spirit in its sevenfold gifts of grace.

A chubby Pigeon represents self-indulgence and slothful ways.

The Owl is a symbol of wisdom but can also represent witchcraft or devilish doings if depited at night or dusk.

A Duck has several meanings. A white duck denotes purity of the soul and a clean conscious. A brown duck that is peering at the human figure suggests the person may be possessed by an evil spirit, devil or at the very least is filled with wickedness. A white duck swimming with swans or other water birds often symbolized the spread of Christianity among the heathens.

The Eagle is a symbol of Christ and of regeneration by baptism. John the Evangelist is symbolically represented by an eagle.

The Phoenix is a symbol of the Resurrection and eternity.

The Cock symbolizes vigilance, and also is an emblem of St. Peter.

The Martlet or house-marten or swallow when shown on the wing near a holy structure is can symbolize backsliders or sinners returning to the fold.

An Osprey on the wing signified the devils henchmen are close at hand. A perched Osprey symbolizes Satan's vigilance in the hunt for backsliders and the easily corrupted.

The Vulture epitomized greed, corruption and ruthless power.

Swan symbolizes purity and is also the emblem of Saint Hugh of Lincoln. he was a great animal lover and as well as caretaker to lepers. A swan he befriended fowled him around and kept watch of him as he slept.

The Robin symbolizes deliverance from evil and God's holy mercy. A caged robin signifies removal from Gods holy grace, The Hidden Symbolism of Birds in Western Painting, assessed 01.01.20

Queen Elizabeth , Portrait (The Pelican Portrait) associated to Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619)

"The queen's appearance at this time was increasingly magnificent and these portraits depict her wearing particularly elaborate clothes and jewellery. She is shown here wearing a highly decorated armlet above her elbow and has many jewels all over her red velvet gown and headdress. The pelican jewel at her breast represents self-sacrifice, as a pelican was said to draw blood from its own breast to feed its young. It alludes to Elizabeth's role as mother to the nation. The two cherries tucked into her right ear probably refer to her virginity (her 'cherry' remains intact). She is shown standing under a fringed canopy, suggesting that she is enthroned. The Phoenix and the Pelican: two portraits of Elizabeth I, c.1575. The National Portrait Gallery, accessed 01/-2/21

Frans van Mieris, “Woman Feeding a Parrot” (1663) and Gerrit Dou, “Woman with a Parrot” (1660-65)

In Dutch "Golden Age" (17th Century) art birds symbolise a variety of things: wealth (as exotic animals were expensive acquisitions, and still lives depicting dead birds for meals and feasts, symbolise conspicuous consumption), colonial power (as many birds pictured in Dutch art were representations of animals acquired through colonial expansion) and sexuality.

Frans van Mieris, “Woman Feeding a Parrot” (1663), oil on panel (© The Leiden Collection, New York)

Gerrit Dou, “Woman with a Parrot” (1660-65), oil on panel (© The Leiden Collection, New York)

"Dou’s 1660–65 work shows a woman bringing a blue-front Amazon parrot out of its cage, the gesture referencing a cautious assertion of her sexual freedom. Meanwhile, van Mieris’s 1663 painting, of his wife feeding an African Grey, is a more tender scene of married life. The thimble on her finger suggests she was just interrupted in her sewing by the attention-demanding parrot, and is now proffering a treat from her hand. The bird arches its feathery neck in response, awaiting a scratch from its owner.

“In a lot of ways it’s an opportunity for a look inside domestic interiors that we’ve never been afforded,” Gonzalez stated. “I think it’s a great way to look at the private life of these people living so fortunately in the Dutch Golden Age.” Indeed, owning a parrot was a marker of status, as the rare avians conveyed worldliness and wealth. Imported from Africa and Asia (before protections on such poaching), birds joined the pearl necklaces, Persian rugs, fur coats, and other markers of prestige in these portraits.

While flamboyantly colored and smart, parrots are also mischievous, noisy, animated, and messy. They throw around their food, they lose feathers. And the clean cages always present in these paintings are not realistic. Yet the connection between the people and the parrots is convincingly portrayed. Parrots are not docile, not completely tamed, and their depictions in these paintings cannot be perceived simply as static symbols.

“I think the Dutch got that, and that’s why you see them not only included because they’re beautiful, but because they were part of the family,” Gonzalez said. “The Dutch genre painters were the first ones to display them that way.” Allison Meier (November 17, 2017), The Vivacious Presence of Parrots in Dutch Golden Age Painting, HYPERALLERGENIC, The Vivacious Presence of Parrots in Dutch Golden Age Painting ( accessed 01/21/21

Franz Marc - Birds, 1914

The Blaue Reiter painter Franz Marc, uses birds highly symbolically, as he does with all animals, often connoting the beauty and innocence of creation. In "Birds" (1914) the abstraction of the bird forms may represent his fears for nature at the beginning of the first world war.

"Marc and Kandinsky split from the Neue Künstlervereinigung in 1911, forming a rival group of artists named Der Blaue Reiter. Together they edited an almanac of the same name, which was published in 1912. Having long been interested in Eastern philosophies and religions, Marc responded enthusiastically to Kandinsky’s notion that art should lay bare the spiritual essence of natural forms instead of copying their objective appearance. Kandinsky and Marc developed the idea that mystical energy is best revealed through abstraction. Marc believed that civilization destroys human awareness of the spiritual force of nature; consequently, he usually painted animals, and he was also passionately interested in the art of “primitive” peoples, children, and the mentally ill."

Walton Ford, ‘La Historia me Absolvera’ (1999)

Birds is art can reference extinction through hunting, destruction of habitat and climate change

"Like his other paintings, much thought and research has gone into La Historia Me Absolverá, which tells the story of the Cuban red macaw, a species of macaw that was native to Cuba and became extinct in the nineteenth century.

The Cuban red macaw was hunted and traded by Europeans who arrived in Cuba in the fifteenth century. Some of the macaws were brought to Europe to be kept as cage birds. Over time, hunting, trading and destruction of their habitat, rendered the Cuban red macaw extinct.

The title of Walton Ford’s painting, La Historia Me Absolverá, which translates as History will absolve me, refers to the closing line of a four-hour speech delivered by Fidel Castro in 1953, while defending himself in court against charges brought against him for an attack he led on an army barracks.

Like the red Cuban macaw, Fidel Castro was a dying breed, who had numerous attempts on his life. In Ford’s work, the macaw is portrayed grasping tightly to a broken tree branch, similar to the grip that Fidel Castro had on the troubled island that he ruled. The Surovek Gallery Walton Ford: La Historia Me Absolverá | Surovek Gallery, accessed 01.02.21

Walton Ford, La Historia Me Absolverá, 1999

Six-color hardground and soft ground etching, aquatint, spit-bite aquatint, drypoint and roulette on Somerset satin paper, 44 x 30 inches

Edition of 50, Signed and dated: Lower right, For sale at the Surovek Gallery



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