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Guest Post: “Some Notes on Parrot Symbolism in Poetry and Religious Art”

Editor’s Note: Nicholas Bielby contacted me after coming across  my post “Parrots in Art.” Below is his essay on parrots in poetry and religious art, which adds new ideas to consider in tandem with  the things that I have written previously. Enjoy! -M

“Some Notes on Parrot Symbolism in Poetry and Religious Art”

Nicholas Bielby

Detail of some of the parrots at in the chancel at the Studley Royal chapel of St. Mary, 1871-78. Image is a detail of a Creative Commons Image via Wikipedia

Detail of some of the carved parrots, nestled in the gold foliage, from the chancel at the Studley Royal chapel of St. Mary, 1871-78. Image is a detail of a Creative Commons Image via Wikipedia

When I took a guided tour of William Burges’s gothic revival church in the grounds of Studley Royal, I was struck by the way the chancel was decorated with highly coloured relief carvings of parrots. I asked the guide, David Thornton, about their significance and he did not know. But we decided to explore the matter further and keep in touch. What follows is the result of our joint explorations.

Macrobius records that, after the battle of Actium, where Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, a parrot greeted the victor, “Ave Caesar” – “Hail, Caesar!” Ever since the first parrot was brought back from India by Alexander the Great, parrots were thought to be miraculous because they spoke with a human voice. And what they generally said was “Ave”, the Latin greeting. Because of their miraculous ability to talk, gorgeous plumage and rarity, parrots were highly valued and used as gifts between kings and emperors. The parrot’s greeting to Octavian, later Augustus Caesar, was subsequently, in the Christian era, taken to be a pre-figuring of the angelic greeting, “Ave Maria.” The parrot was thus associated with the Virgin Mary.

It is not clear whether this association is the only route by which the parrot came to symbolise the Virgin Mary. But Boehrer, in his book “Parrot Culture,” (2004), cites a Middle English Dictionary as defining “papejai” as (i) a parrot and (ii) a lady, the Virgin Mary. He suggests that the rarity, value and decorative qualities of the parrot help make it represent ladies generally: “and the Virgin, most precious and delicate lady of all, stands in for all the others.”

Perhaps the most explicit evidence comes from the poet John Lydgate (C15th) in his Balade in Commendation of Our Lady, where he hails the Virgin Mary as a “popynjay plumed in clennesse.” The term “popynjay” (popinjay) comes from the Old French “papingay” meaning parrot, which itself derives from Arabic. Of course, in English from Shakespeare’s time at least the term “popinjay” is used to describe someone foppishly over-dressed and vain. But clearly, for Lydgate, the connotations of rarity and high value are what he has in mind. The term “clennesse” refers to moral and sexual purity. And the term ‘popinjay’ is the term for parrots in traditional heraldry. They would not be used on coats of arms to denote foppish vanity! They had, partly from the Middle East, connotations of wisdom and courage, and possibly more religious connotations.

Around 1400, the term “papiayes” is used in Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight in the heraldic description of the cloak that the ladies of the court embroider for Gawain when setting out on his quest. It is significant that Gawain should be afforded the protection of the Virgin Mary, as symbolised by the parrots, since one of the major challenges for Gawain on his quest is to retain his sexual purity while still maintaining his reputation for courtesy.

It is worth noting that Boeher mentions two medieval church vestments embroidered with popinjays – we may presume with religious, Marian significance. After all, since the medieval mind found symbols and correspondences in everything, the use of parrots was certainly not merely for decorative effect but for spiritual meaning!

The parrot often appears alongside the Virgin Mary in art. Richard Verdi’s “The Parrot in Art” traces the parrot from Dürer to the modern day, but there are even earlier instances. Clearly, not all these parrots symbolise the Virgin, but Crivelli (c1481), Dürer, Baldung, Mantegna, Schongauer, Van Eyck and the Ms painting by the Egerton Master all feature a parrot with the Virgin.

Parrot from Zaragoza version of the “Defensorium” by Fransiscus de Retz

Parrot from Zaragoza version of the “Defensorium inviolatae virginatatis beatae mariae” by Franciscus de Retz (1343-1427)

In an image from the Zaragoza version of the “Defensorium” by Franciscus de Retz (1343-1427), a ferocious-looking parrot has a scroll issuing from its beak saying, “Ave.” It immediately follows an image of the Annunciation. The text beneath the parrot illustration seems to refer to a medieval folk-belief mentioned in the “Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art,” (2004), that conception takes place through the ear. And here it would seem to link with the parrot’s miraculous ability to speak. I have tried to transliterate the text correctly but the use of medieval Spanish diacritical marks and abbreviations have made this difficult. For example, I think it reasonable to expand ‘vgo pura’ to ‘virgo pura.’ I feel fairly confident about transcribing this much of the text:

“Ptisacus [presumably ‘psitacus’] a natura. si ave dicere valet. quare virgo pura. per ave non generaret…”

The apparent full stops would appear to indicate line divisions into something like goliardic rhymed verse, thus,

Psitacus a natura
Si Ave dicere valet
Quare virgo pura
Per ave generaret

This can be understood in the light of the folk-belief mentioned above that impregnation can take place through the ear – and consequently as a result of being greeted. It may mean something like, “If a parrot, by nature, has the power to speak a greeting, why should not, through a greeting, a pure virgin become pregnant?” What this demonstrates is not so much that the parrot symbolises the Virgin Mary but it does show her close association with the parrot in the medieval mind.

Later on, parrots feature in religious paintings, even if not immediately associated with the Virgin. Rubens includes a parrot in a painting of the Holy Family. Both Dürer and Rubens include a parrot in pictures of Adam and Eve at the Fall, when eating the apple. Here, I think, the symbolism is different. Skelton (early C16th) refers to the parrot, in Speke, Parrot, as “a byrde of Paradyse”. Maybe Dürer’s parrot, totally unaware of what is going on, simply signifies paradise, unaware of the danger it is in. In Rubens’ picture, the parrot is looking anxiously towards the serpent, aware of the danger. It would be far-fetched to see these parrots as long-term symbols of hope, the promise of the New Adam coming through Mary.

In general, by the time we get to the C16th and C17th, “popinjay” has come only to have its current derogatory meaning. It religious connotations seem to have been lost. For Dutch artists, parrots simply represent affluence, conspicuous consumption and trade connections with exotic places; and as time goes on, sometimes as symbols of vanity. Perhaps the Reformation, prevalent in the Low Countries, caused the Marian symbolism to be lost.

In the C19th, William Burges, follower of Pugin, was a great medievalist and collector of Dürer. Significantly, his church at Studley Royal, decorated in the chancel with a frieze of brightly coloured parrots, is dedicated to the Virgin. It is a fair guess that he had rediscovered the medieval Marian symbolism of the parrot. The same symbolic use of parrots can be found elsewhere in his work, for example in the chapel at Mount Stuart on Bute and in Cardiff Castle.

Nicholas Bielby is a retired faculty member of the School of Education at Leeds University. He is a poet and editor of  www.graftpoetry.co.uk

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Guest Post: Artistic Depictions of Card Games between 1880 and 1980

Editor’s note: I was recently contacted by Sophie Jackson, a gaming journalist and writer. Sophie wrote an article which featured a several paintings with depictions of card games. I had never seen some of these paintings before, which so it was fun to discover them through Sophie’s article. Although I rarely feature guest posts from outsiders, I feel like this article fits well with my blog (I’m reminded of when I set out on a quest to find depictions of laundresses), and I’m happy to feature Sophie’s post here.

Artistic Depictions of Card Games between 1880 and 1980

by Sophie Jackson

From Caravaggio to Picasso, Boulogne to Cézanne, the depiction of card games in major works of art has become an increasingly popular subject of study amongst critics. Many have focused on how the controversial but enduring topic of gambling and its place in society has, as with all major social issues, been examined by artists in various ways throughout the centuries. These artworks offer us unique insight into the spread of specific games, the changing manner in which they’re played and – in the case of games such as poker – the legal history. Inspired by Francesco Esposito’s original article, this piece seeks to comment on individual artistic depictions of card games over a time period of one hundred years, starting with Gustave Caillebotte’s ‘Game of Bezique’ from 1880.

Gustave Caillebotte, "The Bezique Game," 1880

Gustave Caillebotte, “Game of Bezique,” 1880

Born into a wealthy family, Caillebotte was brought up in Paris and pursued a career in painting after returning home from the Franco-Prussian war. His art typically depicted the intimate, every-day ongoings you might find in a 19th century upper-class household.1 Caillebotte’s subjects were usually engaged in some leisurely activity, whether it be piano playing, sewing or high tea. Bezique was a popular card game in Paris during the latter half of the 1800s, deriving from its earlier variant, ‘Piquet.’ In Caillebotte’s Game of Bezique, a group of men are crowded around a card table in observation of the trick-taking game being played between the younger and older gentlemen.

Caillebotte is particularly famed for his ability to portray a perspective of depth in his paintings, a quality especially prominent in his paintings of balcony and window views. Though not as notable in Game of Bezique, the man seated on the sofa in the distance certainly contributes a depth perspective to the painting, as he seems far removed from the action and somewhat generally out of place. Perhaps he does not know how to play, or maybe there is a more metaphorical purpose to his inclusion. Perhaps his presence symbolises a depressive state which renders him incapable of enjoying social and trivial activities such as a card game amongst friends.

John George Brown, "Bluffing," 1885

John George Brown, “Bluffing,” 1885

Though Brown had himself endured the hardships of an impoverished childhood, the street urchins depicted in his paintings were always cheery and healthy-looking. Paintings of anything too grim or sordid would have been unpopular with the upperclass, to which the majority of Brown’s commissioners belonged. In this particular painting we see two poor children, with ripped clothes and dirty feet, deeply immersed in a card game. The title Bluffing might suggest the game is some variation of poker; however the boys could also be playing ‘cheat.’ The mischievous and smug look on the boy to the left indicates he is the one ‘bluffing,’ whilst the other boy frowns with frustration as he looks down upon his cards. The pale and plain background focuses our eyes on the boys and their cards – indeed, the boys themselves seem totally absorbed by the game. Brown was known to have said he painted underprivileged boys because he, too, “was once a poor lad like them.”2 A pack of cards would have offered plenty of pastime for poor children without many toys. Perhaps Brown had fond childhood memories of playing cards on the streets.

Albert Beck Wenzell, "A Showdown," 1895

Albert Beck Wenzell, “A Showdown,” 1895

Wenzell’s paintings typically depicted scenes of wealth and optimism, reflecting the Belle Epoque age in which he lived. His subjects and setting were fantastically exaggerated with opulent detail and radiant colours, accurately capturing the wave of content that moved across the West at that time. Wenzell had himself grown up in a wealthy environment and been educated in Paris and Munich. Painting what he knew, Wenzell portrayed the luxurious and somewhat hedonistic lifestyle of the era’s upperclass. The artist was usually commissioned by rich American families who wanted artwork that depicted casual yet glamorous scenes. Wenzell therefore focused on beautiful, fashionably clad women interacting with older gentlemen in a familiar home setting.3 In A Showdown, however, Wenzell portrays only men, chewing cigars and dressed in business suits, engaged in what appears to he be the later stages of a poker game. Special attention should be given to the body language of all players. It seems almost as if the men are attempting to adopt a relaxed pose to ease the tension, but end up looking especially rigid as a result. The gentlemen to the far right looks particularly distressed, whilst the gentlemen to the left is slouching so far back in his chair that he looks uncomfortable. The painting’s title A Showdown confirms the confrontational and competitive nature of the scene. In poker, ‘showdown’ is the term used to describe the requirement for final players to show their hands at the end of the game. Clearly, a dramatic moment is about to unfold.

William Holbrook Beard, ‘The Poker Game’, 1887

William Holbrook Beard, ‘The Poker Game’, 1887

Dogs aren’t the only animals to have been painted at the card table. American painter Beard had a fascination with nature and famously portrayed wild animals in a disturbingly humanistic manner.4 The Poker Game is particularly unsettling in its depiction of chimps in Renaissance or Baroque clothing, gathered around a table. Most of the chimps are deeply concentrated on the card game at stake, though the servant and monk merely observe. Another chimp seems to be advising one of the players, whose four cards in hand, along with a fifth being passed to him, would indicate they are playing a five-card draw. The dark, stone setting and candlelight seems to imply the scene takes place in a castle room. Perhaps the non-participating chimp to the far left is the king, watching his subjects play cards and drink wine.

Norman Rockwell, "The Bid," 1948

Norman Rockwell, “The Bid,” 1948

Rockwell’s influential art has undoubtedly become symbolic of American culture. Characterised by sunny colours and cheerful scenes, his illustrations depict sportsmen, industrial workers and the atomic family – all of whom in some way represented the American Dream. During the war, his paintings instilled a sense of righteousness and triumph, a sentiment with which the American government was keen to inspire people when they published Rockwell’s art as motivational posters. In The Bid, Rockwell depicts a casual and pleasant card game between friends in post-war America. The sandy floor, bright shades and sleeveless shirts of the women suggests the subjects are playing during the summer. Contrasting businessmen with a beach-like setting, Rockwell blends business with pleasure – reflective of the upper class lifestyle in late ’40s America. The mismatch of chairs is a charming detail, as it implies the seating was arranged hurriedly and without care, as if the card game was a spur-of-the-moment idea. Along with good company and good weather, the subjects in this postcard-esque painting are said to be enjoying a game of ‘Bridge.’

LeRoy Neiman, "Stud Poker," 1980

LeRoy Neiman, “Stud Poker,” 1980

The very distinctive style of LeRoy Neiman can be characterized by his brisk brush strokes and hazy colouring, a method which seemed to capture the motion of his subjects and atmosphere of his setting. There are few places as bright and bustling as a casino, which perhaps explains with Neiman chose Vegas as the setting for so many of his artworks. Titled simply Stud Poker, this lively depiction of players around a card table is curiously reminiscent of Monet’s gardens. Indeed, the colourful chips on the green card table might as well be lillies in a pond. When looking at the poker players in closer detail, one can start to differentiate the features of each character, most of whom appear to be formally-dressed men – with the exception of a red-headed woman. Vibrant, busy and modern; the impressionistic and expressionist Stud Poker is a perfect example of Neiman’s eccentric style.

Most fascinating, when comparing the depiction of card games in art, is a consideration of how these games can be said to transcend social class. Not only have card games been infallibly popular over the past centuries, but they have always appealed equally to peasants as they have to kings. Another aspect worth studying is how the type of card game depicted in art changes depending upon era and, at times, the nationality of the painter. One should also note how, in the last two 20th century paintings sampled above, there are women participating in the games. This marks a shift in social attitudes, reflecting the move from ‘gentlemen’s poker nights’ toward a tendency of more gender-inclusive games. The final facet worth considering is how the depiction of gambling in art has often hinted toward its legal status during the artist’s era. Whilst many popular works of art have portrayed betting activities taking place in dark back rooms, between shifty and drunken characters, paintings such as Neiman’s Stud Poker shows the incorporation of gambling into mainstream culture. In short, the depiction of card games, as seen in works of art, can offer us insight into the unique and fascinating role these social yet competitive games play in our society.

[1] Gustave Caillebotte, The Complete Works, Early Life, 2009

[2] Birmingham Museum of Art, ‘Three for Five’ by John George Brown, 2012

[3] Society of Illustrators, Hall of Fame, Albert Beck Wenzell, 2005

[4] Art.com, Wiki, William Holbrook Beard, 2013

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Guest Post on 3PP: Bernini’s “David”

Bernini, David, 1623-24. Image courtesty of the Web Gallery of Art

I’m honored to have a guest post featured on Three Pipe Problem. It was really enjoyable to write this essay and reflect on my experiences with art history over the past several years. In this post, I particularly consider how my experience of viewing Bernini’s David changed the way that I approach, analyze, and experience art. Please join the discussion over there!

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Guest Post: Trouble for the "Victorious Youth"

Today I’m pleased to feature a guest post by Pamelia Brown. Pamelia writes for Associates Degree [dot] com, and has a written a couple of entries there that might be of particular interest to people who read this blog.

For today’s post, Pamelia is writing about the Getty Museum’s “Victorious Youth,” a sculpture which has seen a lot of news coverage this past month:


Victorious Youth, 300-100 BCE, Getty Museum

For a work of art whose creator isn’t identified, the Victorious Youth gets a lot of press.The Greek bronze statue was discovered in international fishing waters by Italian fishermen in 1964. However, instead of revealing the discovery to the Italian government, or even returning it to Greece, the men who discovered it hid it and sold it, leading to the statue eventually being smuggled out of the country and sold at auction. J. Paul Getty, the billionaire oilman, made plans in 1972 to buy the statue despite protests from the Italian government. He died in 1976, and the Getty Museum bought the statue the next year, after the seller’s Italian attorneys made assurances that the sale was legal. That was just the beginning of the trouble.
Earlier this month, an Italian judge ordered that the Victorious Youth be seized from the museum and returned to Italy. It’s a follow-up to a 2007 agreement in which the Getty, acknowledging that many of its pieces were likely acquired illegally, announced it would return 40 of its pieces to the Italian government, though not the statue. It’s not clear how effective the order could be enforced here, but it does open the door for further negotiations with the Getty Museum. While the museum did issue a statement saying the order was “flawed both procedurally and substantively,” the following week saw the Getty announce a renewed partnershipwith Italy by working with Sicily on object conservation, and that decision also stemmed from the 2007 agreement.I think it’s a shame that a sculpture has been reduced to a prize being quarreled over by an angry government and a museum that’s probably resorted to off-the-book practices to acquire art. It makes me wonder how many times we let art be swallowed by a different story. Perhaps some kind of share or trade could be worked out, where the statue spent part of its time in the Getty Villa in Malibu and the rest of the area in Italy. I know it’s not a perfect solution, but it’s surely better than courtroom showdowns.This guest post is contributed by Pamelia Brown, who writes on the topics of associates degree. She welcomes your comments at her email Id pamelia.brown@gmail.com .

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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.