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Significance of the peacock


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#1 Kris

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Posted 23 June 2008 - 06:37 PM

I often see decorative peacocks, which I'm told symbolise Paradise, in churches (usually carved into the iconostasis), printed in liturgical books, etc. Does anyone know where this symbolism comes from, when it was first introduced, and by whom?

Thanks

#2 M.C. Steenberg

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Posted 23 June 2008 - 07:16 PM

Dear Reader Kris, you wrote:

I often see decorative peacocks, which I'm told symbolise Paradise, in churches (usually carved into the iconostasis), printed in liturgical books, etc. Does anyone know where this symbolism comes from, when it was first introduced, and by whom?

Others will undoubtedly be able to give you a fuller response, but I will offer what little I know of the subject.

While I'm unsure if it is possible to give a precise 'who' to 'who first introduced' the peacock symbolism into Christian art and representation, it is certainly amongst the earliest symbols. Both the catacombs of Priscilla and Sebastian (third century AD) contain them prominently. From the catacomb of Priscilla, we have:

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And from St Sebastian we have this:

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These are in addition to other occurrences in the catacombs, often decorating chapels or painted directly onto tombs. Sometimes these are carved into the sarcophagi:

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This clearly places the peacock as a stock image in Christian pictoral symbolism from its very beginnings, as these are some of the earliest Christian images in existence.

What the peacock is meant to represent is open to many, many interpretations -- many of them likely valid and true, others a bit more fanciful. Amongst the most common are these:

  • There was an ancient Greek tradition that a peacock's flesh did not decay; hence it was a particularly potent symbol of eternal life.
  • Over the life of a peacock, its grows new feathers each year; and each year these are more brighter than those of the past. As such, there is an image in this of newness of life and lustre.
  • The 'eye' patterns in the peacock's tail feathers, when the tail is spread open, have often been taken to represent the vault of heaven bespeckled with the sun, moon, and stars, giving the bird the symbolic significance of the cosmos.
  • More commonly, the 'many eyes' of the peacock's tail are taken to symbolise the all-seeing vision of God.
  • Following an old Persian and Babylonian custom, the peacock was associated with Paradise and the Tree of Life (which is why it is so often seen next to the Tree of Life in religious depictions, as in those from the catacombs, above), and hence associated with immortality.
As I say, these are only the most common. There are many other traditions of symbolism surrounding the peacock.

INXC, Dcn Matthew



#3 Effie Ganatsios

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Posted 24 June 2008 - 06:22 AM

Kris, Father Matthew has already explained why the peacock is used. As I understand it, the peacocks are a symbol of immortality.

If you go to my albums "My parish church St. Demetrius" in picture 1 you will see a beautiful mosaic of 2 peacocks.(I posted a close up of pic. 6). It looks a little like the last picture Father Matthew posted in his message. The two peacocks are facing each other and in between them is the fountain of life. Or perhaps the fountain is a symbol of Christ who is living water. The faithful entering the church grounds pass under this mosaic. I will ask my parish priest about the exact meaning of this because if there is one thing I have discovered over the years, it is that everything has a logical explanation.

#4 Kris

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Posted 24 June 2008 - 06:59 PM

Thank you both very much for your answers! This is exactly the kind of stuff I was looking for.

[*]Following an old Persian and Babylonian custom, the peacock was associated with Paradise and the Tree of Life (which is why it is so often seen next to the Tree of Life in religious depictions, as in those from the catacombs, above), and hence associated with immortality.


Would you be able to elaborate on this point? Is it a uniquely Christian tradition, or does it have older roots? The Yazidi sect uses a peacock to symbolise their deity, which I assume can be traced back to an older, possibly Zoroastrian, figure. Looking at the Book of Daniel, we see many Zoroastrian elements reinterpreted to express Jewish ideas. Could the association of the peacock with the Tree of Life have its origins in the Babyolnian captivity?

I'd be very interested in hearing more about this tradition.

#5 Ryan

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Posted 19 October 2009 - 02:59 PM

I've noticed that, along with peacocks, I often see images of deer flanking fountains. Could someone explain the significance of this?

#6 Herman Blaydoe

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Posted 19 October 2009 - 03:18 PM

Thank you both very much for your answers! This is exactly the kind of stuff I was looking for.



Would you be able to elaborate on this point? Is it a uniquely Christian tradition, or does it have older roots? The Yazidi sect uses a peacock to symbolise their deity, which I assume can be traced back to an older, possibly Zoroastrian, figure. Looking at the Book of Daniel, we see many Zoroastrian elements reinterpreted to express Jewish ideas. Could the association of the peacock with the Tree of Life have its origins in the Babyolnian captivity?

I'd be very interested in hearing more about this tradition.


As has been commented on to some degree in the thread "Pagan Christianity", I would say that the supposedly "older" roots have their roots in the Truth, that is, it is but a shadow of what has been ultimately revealed in Christ. Other peoples, other cultures, may have guessed at and touched the Truth that is Christ, but only in an obscured manner and not fully understood.

If it is said that the Jews got their ideas from the Babylonians, I would say at most it would be a reappropriation rather than a reinvention. Or it is simply grasping at something familiar to try to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Or so it seems to this bear of little brain.

Herman the Pooh

#7 M.C. Steenberg

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Posted 19 October 2009 - 03:41 PM

I've noticed that, along with peacocks, I often see images of deer flanking fountains. Could someone explain the significance of this?


Dear Ryan, the significance almost certainly comes directly from Psalm 42.1: 'As the hart [i.e. male deer] panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.'

INXC, Dcn Matthew

#8 Michael Stickles

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Posted 19 October 2009 - 05:29 PM

Thought I'd toss in some quotes from the Fathers about the peacock.

Fr Dcn Matthew mentioned the tradition about the peacock's flesh not decaying, making it a symbol of eternal life. This is attested to by St. Augustine in his City of God:

For who but God the Creator of all things has given to the flesh of the peacock its antiseptic property? 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 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.


St. Gregory of Nyssa, in Against Eunomius (one of his Dogmatic Treatises), cites the peacock to illustrate the concept of figurative meaning (specifically, in referring to one of the Proverbs):

For that which is not directly understood needs some turn for the apprehension of the thing concealed; and as Paul, when about to exchange the literal sense of the history for figurative contemplation, says that he will “change his voice,” so here the manifestation of the hidden meaning is called by Solomon a “turn of the saying,” as if the beauty of the thoughts could not be perceived, unless one were to obtain a view of the revealed brightness of the thought by turning the apparent meaning of the saying round about, as happens with the plumage with which the peacock is decked behind. For in him, one who sees the back of his plumage quite despises it for its want of beauty and tint, as a mean sight; but if one were to turn it round and show him the other view of it, he then sees the varied painting of nature, the half-circle shining in the midst with its dye of purple, and the golden mist round the circle ringed round and glistening at its edge with its many rainbow hues.


While not specifically about meaning or symbolism, here's an interesting quote about a use of the peacock's feathers during the liturgy, from the Apostolic Constitutions:

... the deacon shall immediately say, Let none of the catechumens, let none of the hearers, let none of the unbelievers, let none of the heterodox, stay here. You who have prayed the foregoing prayer, depart. Let the mothers receive their children; let no one have anything against any one; let no one come in hypocrisy; let us stand upright before the Lord with fear and trembling, to offer. When this is done, let the deacons bring the gifts to the bishop at the altar; and let the presbyters stand on his right hand, and on his left, as disciples stand before their Master. But let two of the deacons, on each side of the altar, hold a fan, made up of thin membranes, or of the feathers of the peacock, or of fine cloth, and let them silently drive away the small animals that fly about, that they may not come near to the cups.


Finally, while probably not strictly patristic, this quote does come from the Ante-Nicene Fathers collection, in the Clementine Homilies from the Pseudo-Clementine Literature, using the peacock's egg to illustrate the creation of the world:

For the whole body of matter was borne about for some Time, before it brought forth, like an egg, the sphere-like, all-embracing heaven (ouranos), which at first was full of productive marrow, so that it was able to produce out of itself elements and colours of all sorts, while from the one substance and the one colour it produced all kinds of forms. For as a peacock’s egg seems to have only one colour, while potentially it has in it all the colours of the animal that is to be, so this living egg, conceived out of infinite matter, when set in motion by the underlying and ever-flowing matter, produces many different forms.


This illustration is sometimes given in parallel with the mustard seed, as in this quote from Hippolytus' The Refutation of All Heresies, speaking of Basilides' creation views:

But Basilides also himself affirms that there is a non-existent God, who, being non-existent, has made the non-existent world, that has been formed out of things that are not, by casting down a certain seed, as it were a grain of mustard-seed, having in itself stem, leaves, branches, and fruit. Or this seed is as a peacock’s egg, comprising in itself the varied multitude of colours. And this, say the Basilidians, constitutes the seed of the world, from which all things have been produced.


Even if the specific creation doctrine was considered heretical, the illustration or symbolism may have been retained, or might be a more ancient symbolism which Basilides and/or the Pseudo-Clementines appropriated instead of authored. While I can't see details too well in the image from the catacomb of St. Sebastian, it looks like on the right, between the bird and the central bowl, might be two eggs on the ground (one whole, one hatched), and perhaps the tree behind the bird is a mustard tree? Just a thought.

In Christ,
Michael

#9 Elena

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Posted 15 January 2010 - 05:17 PM


While not specifically about meaning or symbolism, here's an interesting quote about a use of the peacock's feathers during the liturgy, from the Apostolic Constitutions:


I find this fascinating. My Russian grandmother taught me as a child never to bring cast-off peacock feathers into the house because as they were less beautiful than the peacocks current plumage they symbolised a hankering after the past in contradiction to the peacocks role as a symbol of eternal growth and immortality and therefore very bad luck. Also she would never use peacock feathers in clothes she designed and made because in addition to the above it was inappropriate for humans to garb themselves in the beauty God had specially assigned to another part of His creation. This occasionally caused problems when she was designed costumes for others but she would never budge.

#10 Ben Johnson

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Posted 16 January 2010 - 02:40 AM

NBC likes the bird. :)

#11 David Hawthorne

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Posted 17 January 2010 - 05:07 AM

As has been commented on to some degree in the thread "Pagan Christianity", I would say that the supposedly "older" roots have their roots in the Truth, that is, it is but a shadow of what has been ultimately revealed in Christ. Other peoples, other cultures, may have guessed at and touched the Truth that is Christ, but only in an obscured manner and not fully understood.

If it is said that the Jews got their ideas from the Babylonians, I would say at most it would be a reappropriation rather than a reinvention. Or it is simply grasping at something familiar to try to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Or so it seems to this bear of little brain.

Herman the Pooh


I am not so sure that it was Daniel/ the Jews reinterpreting Zoroastrian/Babylonian symbolism. Remember the lost tribes of Israel were transplanted to the areas where Zoroastrians later evolved (according to most scholars) and Babylonians currently were. Perhaps these Israelites brought the hybrid Jewish/Pagan beliefs for which they were judged with them that later influenced the Zoroastrian and Babylonian (later the Persian) religions. Perhaps the borrowing went the other way (from Judaism TO paganism) BEFORE the kingdom of Judah was also exiled and later repatriated..... in other words, the beliefs in demons, judgement, hell, angels, etc. were absorbed by pagan society from the Israelite tribes resettled by the Assyrians in the precise areas of later Zoroastrian and Persian culture. Then the kingdom of Judah was conquered and exiled into a society transformed by this absorption of beliefs and then allowed to go back to their homeland to rebuild by a somewhat sympathetic culture..............

#12 Seda S.

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Posted 17 January 2010 - 11:33 AM

Peacocks, along with many other kinds of birds, mainly fisher-birds, roosters, doves, partridges, wild ducks, and with some other animals, were used richly also in the decorations of Eusebian canon-tables which open the Gospel codices, both Greek, and Latin, Armenian, Syriac and Georgian. There are medieval Armenian brief commentaries on the canon-tables which deal with the symbolism of the colours of the arches and the birds, animals and plants used in the decoration of canon-tables. According to those interpretations, the oldest of which is from the 8th century, peacocks symbolize either the Old Covenant's righteous people, or the angels.

The peacocks are usually depicted on top of the arch (mostly two peacocks facing each other, as Effy Ganatsios mentioned, though one peacock may also be found, as in the image provided by Fr Matthew), that is 'outside' of the canon-table, usually in the first canon table (there are 10 tables in whole). "The birds, the peacocks, on top of the arches [symbolize] the prophets and the elected of the Old Law which were outside the Church, in bodily splendid adornments speaking on the New Church." But they may be depicted also in other canon-tables, and with golden tails and feathers. And they symbolize angels who have "pure, unblended and unstained nature", "pure and incorruptible nature" , "luminous and unstained nature". "The golden feather on the head of the peacock [symbolizes] their (of the angels - S.) morning knowledge and in the tail - the evening knowledge. The beak of the peacocks [stretched] to the table shows that they taste their knowledge from the table of God." If the peacocks have black feet, the latter (which are two, of course) symbolize the double sadness of angels for the fallen angels and the sinful humanity. If two birds (also peacocks) have united, in a twisted way, their necks with each other, they symbolize the union of the Old and New Testaments.




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