The Immortal Peacock

According to ancient legend, the flesh of the peacock is incapable of decay. Yep, that’s right. It was thought that a peacock’s body would never rot. It would be really cool if this was true, but it isn’t. This myth was propagated by early writers (see here for an interesting example in Augustine’s City of God).1 As a result of this myth, the peacock has been associated with immortality in Christian art. Furthermore, because male peacocks shed and regrow their plumage each year, the peacock also is associated with resurrection.

Peacocks have appeared in Christian art for centuries. Some of the earthen lamps used by early Christians were decorated with peacocks.2 One of the earliest paintings of a”Christian” peacock decorates the ceiling painting in the catacomb of Priscilla* (3rd century AD, Rome, Italy; the peacock is located in the lunette above the “Life of Priscilla” scene). Since catacombs were the tombs for early Christians, it is appropriate that a depiction of a peacock be included here, due to this assocation with resurrection and immortality. I think it is especially interesting that the peacock is located near a depiction of Christ, since Christ is also associated with resurrection and immortality (Christ is shown as the Good Shepherd in the central, circular frame).

Thousands of years later, in the Renaissance, Fra Angelio and Fra Filippo Lippi still included the peacock in their religious art (this is a detail from the Adoration of the Magi, c. 1440/1460). Perched on the stable above the Christ child, the peacock watches the wise men bring gifts to the baby. As a complement to the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the peacock symbolizes the gift of immortality that is offered by Christianity.3

I know that peacocks have both positive and negative associations in other contexts and cultures. In America, it could be argued that peacocks are most commonly associated with vanity. I think it’s fun to look at peacocks in a different light, as a symbol of immortality.

1 To see some other examples of early writings (and a great image of a peacock from a medieval bestiary, see here).

2 “Roman Catacombs,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia (2009), accessed 18 May 2009. Found online here.

3 A complete view of the painting (and more information about it) can be found here.

*Catacomb of Priscilla image courtesy batigolix on Flickr.

  • Emilee . . . says:

    I had no idea that peacocks were associated with the resurrection, but after reading this, it makes sense.

    I think they are like artwork; they’re so beautiful and interesting (well, the male ones), though they are a bit annoying and mean in real life. When I was growing up, there was a pasture next to our house with peacocks in it. Male peacocks are pretty vicious things — they used to chase us (though, we probably taunted them), and they cry their unusual call ALL night long, “Hhhhhelp, hhhhelp!”

    Wow, I totally didn’t mean to go off on that. Ha ha. Great post though :)

  • miss b says:

    Peacocks are everywhere right now. In fact, I was going to do a post about them in the current art scene. You’ve inspired me.

  • A Super Dilettante says:

    Your blog is fabulous!! The only thing about peacock (in my country) is that most people don’t like them because their feather resembles the devil’s eyes (although I doubt how many of them have seen a real devil in real life).

  • M says:

    Hey, that’s interesting about peacock feathers and the Devil’s eyes! Thanks for sharing, A Super Dilettante.

  • Decorator says:

    I came to your blog by chance and was impressed by the wonderful discovery about peacocks. It happens so that I've been interested in peacocks for a long time as a decorator and every Monday I publish some pictures in my Russian blog. I couldn't help translating your post into Russian for the people who love peacocks and art as much as I do)) I hope that you wouldn't mind my freedom )) maybe you will find something interesting for yourself in my PeacockMania section :)
    http://www.liveinternet.ru/users/decorator1/rubric/1194043/

  • M says:

    Decorator, thanks for your nice comment. I definitely don't mind that you translated some of post into Russian. On the contrary, I'm quite pleased and flattered. Thanks for including a link to your blog. I enjoyed looking at the pictures in your "Peacock Mania" section – it's a pity that I don't speak Russian. :)

  • M says:

    It seems to me that Botticelli might have painted a peacock on the right side of his painting Adoration of the Magi (c. 1475). As of yet, I haven't found any commentary on the topic, but the peacock symbol would be appropriate in this context. I can't see the bird's tail in order to concretely identify it as a peacock, though.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.