If you’ve ever seen a peacock spread its tail feathers in a stunning display, you already know the splendor of this bird. If you were in a public place, you may have noticed the awe of the crowd that gathered. It’s not hard to understand how such a regal creature became a medieval symbol of Christ.
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The Peacock, a Medieval Symbol of Christ
The regal bird appeared in early Christian mosaics and paintings, often accompanied by the Tree of Life, beginning in the 3rd Century. The peacock adorned medieval manuscripts. It is found in decorative motifs on medieval churches and buildings. In the Middle Ages, the peacock was a Christian symbol of resurrection, renewal, and immortality. The birds decorated tombs and are found in Roman Catacombs where persecuted Christians sheltered. The imagery served as a comforting reminder of eternity in a perilous era.
|This fibula is one of a pair crafted in a workshop in northern France. The peacock likely reflects Roman or Byzantine influence, as it is not native to northern France. In early Christian art, the peacock was a symbol of immortality. Knowledge of the bird could have passed to northern France through the transmission of Christian iconography in textiles, books, and other portable objects. The fibula originally was one of a pair of brooches worn by women on either side of the chest. A second gold peacock fibula, plausibly the mate to Walters 57.570, belongs to the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest. Image courtesy of Walters Art Museum [Public domain].|
How the Symbolism Came AboutThe connection with Jesus and His resurrection came about due to an ancient Greek belief that a peacock’s flesh did not decay after death. Another factor was that peacocks grow successively beautiful feathers after molting each year. The birds’ vibrant colors were said to come from the consumption of poisonous snakes. This reminded people of Christ’s becoming sin for our sakes. And the numerous eyes on the male’s tail feathers represented the all-seeing eye of God.
A Cherished Medieval Delicacy
In Roman times, peacock meat was consumed by the wealthiest members of society. During the Middle Ages, the peacock was also prized as a delicacy. In the 14th-century, King Richard’s Christmas feast included a peacock. After the bird was skinned and roasted, its skin with feathers attached was pulled back over it, making the cooked bird appear alive. The highest ranking lady would carry the roasted peacock in to the dining hall, and a knight carved the bird as a special honor.