The Immortal Peacock

I first saw a real live peacock when I was quite young, in Victoria Park in the city where I was brought up. An area of grass and trees very close to the railway station, and therefore – in the early 1950s –very sooty, it contained, as well as swings and a slide, some small cages containing various ducks and other fowl. In one of them was a solitary and miserable-looking peacock, who, on one never-to-be forgotten day, had his tail open (there was barely enough room in the cage). After that, I would rush to the cage as soon as I arrived to see if he was doing it again, but no luck – and alas, quite soon, the cage was mysteriously empty.

The peacock (or male peafowl, the female being a peahen), as seen in the UK, is usually Pavo cristatus (L.), the blue or Indian peafowl, pavo being the Latin name for peafowl and cristatus meaning ‘crested’. (There are two other species, Pavo muticus, the green or Java peafowl, and Afropavo congensis, the Congo or African peafowl.)

The Indian peacock, either beginning or ending his display. (Credit: Julia)

That both the Romans and indeed the Greeks had a word for a bird native to the Indian subcontinent shows that it must have been well known in ancient times (the Greek τάως comes from Persian Tâvus), and the first references in English come from the fourteenth century: Chaucer has Troilus,‘as proud a pekok’, brought down by the arrows of love (Troilus and Criseyde, 1. 210).  Human introductions mean that the birds can be found almost anywhere in the world (they have been able to adapt, apparently, to much colder climates than their subtropical native habitat). And of course they are so gorgeous that they have been irresistible as subjects for artists for centuries.

J.M.W. Turner, Head of a Peacock, c. 1815.

Study of a peacock feather, 1837, by John Ruskin. (Both these images come from the ‘Ruskin at Two Hundred’ exhibition at Two Temple Place earlier this year.)

They also have a symbolic value, and one that struck me forcibly during our recent holiday is the late-Roman Christian use of the peacock as an image of the resurrection of Christ and also of the immortality of the soul.

A sarcophagus from the church of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, showing peacocks and vines with the Christian symbols of the Chi-Ro and Alpha and Omega.

It was, apparently, believed that the flesh of the peacock did not decay after death: this is St Augustine on the topic (De Civitate Dei, 21.4): ‘For who but God the Creator of all things has given to the flesh of the peacock its antiseptic property?

‘St Augustine in his study’, part of the wonderful St Gregory sequence by Carpaccio in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice. (Note the scientific equipment.) The point of his story is to demonstrate that God can keep flesh alive to be burnt in Hell for eternity.

This property, when I first heard of it, seemed to me incredible; but it happened at Carthage that a bird of this kind was cooked and served up to me, and, taking a suitable slice of flesh from its breast, I ordered it to be kept, and when it had been kept as many days as would make any other flesh stinking, it was produced and set before me, and emitted no offensive smell. And after it had been laid by for thirty days and more, it was still in the same state; and a year after, the same still, except that it was a little more shrivelled, and drier.’

Rubens’s discreetly un-gory interpretation of the Hera/Juno and Argus myth. (Credit: Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne)

In addition, the eyes in the peacock’s tail (plucked, according to Greek legend, from the head of the hundred-eyed giant Argus and placed there by Hera when he messed up a straightforward surveillance job) represent the all-seeing eye of God. And when a peacock sips water from a fountain, the image is that of the soul drinking the water of eternal life. So here are some peacocks from Venice and Ravenna.


Peacocks drinking, from the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello.

Peacocks eating, from the floor of Santa Maria and San Donato in Murano.

Non-symmetrical peacocks, from San Vitale, Ravenna.

Also from San Vitale, a relatively rare instance of a peacock opening its tail.

Outside San Vitale, a sarcophagus with peacocks and lambs on the lid.

Inside the ‘Mausoleum of Galla Placidia’, no peacocks, but the use of peacock colours to adorn the underside of an arch.

Inside the remarkable National Museum at Ravenna, a sarcophagus, with similar imagery to the one at Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, but even more finely carved.

At the Archiepiscopal Museum in Ravenna, two details from the ivory throne thought to have been used by Archbishop Maximianus.

Peacocks among the other birds on the ceiling of the antechamber to the chapel of Sant’ Andrea in the Archiepiscopal Palace.

Peacocks and vines with a Chi-Ro on a screen at Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo.

A detail of a screen from the church of San Michele in Africisco in Ravenna, closed by Napoleon and later demolished (apart from its campanile). The mosaic in its apse was bought by King Frederick William IV of Prussia in the 1840s and now resides in the Bode Museum in Berlin.

The enormous pulpit in the Duomo at Ravenna is decorated with tiers of birds and animals, including peacocks (below).

At Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, peacocks decorate an archway.

The end panel of a sarcophagus at Sant’ Apollinare in Classe.

Another end panel, with vines.

Maintaining the tradition: at the Art Museum in Ravenna, a mosaic panel created in 1952 by Lino Melano to decorate the bar in the railway station.

And finally, what might have been. This brick panel from Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, now in the National Museum at Ravenna, shows the underdrawing for an never-created mosaic.

This entry was posted in Archaeology, Art, Classics, History, Italy, Museums and Galleries, Natural history and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Immortal Peacock

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