Peacockery

The peacock has captured the imagination of artists for millennia. It is an interesting bird, with the female, like so many in nature, being unadorned, but the male possessing upper tail feathers that spread out into a fan when it displays itself as part of a courtship process. Studies have shown that peahens are, indeed, attracted to the most lavishly embellished males, an extreme example of how the sexual urge has influenced evolution in the natural world. And the bird is an astonishing sight to behold. While its call is unimpressive -calling to mind a demented and slightly disgruntled cat- a peacock in its glory is an absolutely magnificent spectacle. The photograph below pictures a peacock wooing a peahen though the latter seems rather disinterested.

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Given its visual draw, the bird possessed incredibly ancient and rich symbolism. In Greek mythology, it was associated with the goddess Hera, who took the eyes from the hundred-eyed Argus and transposed them to the bird’s tail, so that she could spy on her serially unfaithful spouse (and brother), Zeus. Her priestesses used peacock fans in their temple rituals. Given the bird’s own fertility activities, it isn’t surprising that the animal was held to be a symbol of marriage. In the east, the bird was particularly associated with the sun, doubtless because of the shape of its tail, and also with royalty, probably because huge fans always were a royal marker and, again, a suggestion of the fan-shaped tailed. These fans or flabella generally used ostrich feathers and their use in royal courts survived at least three millennia until the 1960s, when last used in papal ceremonies (below – flanking Pius XII in the 1950s), before being discontinued by the liturgically hopeless and historically illiterate Paul VI (whose reign from 1963 to 1978 is a byword for failure). All is not lost, however, since Orthodox and Eastern Catholics still use a stylized version of the fan made out of precious metals in their ceremonial.

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This royal use is very curious since it developed out of the rather banal fan being used for the pedestrian need to provide circulation and dissuade flies. Not to be outdone, Christianity appropriated the avian symbolism, with St Augustine carrying on Aristotle’s thesis that peacock flesh was incorruptible, giving rise to the bird’s association with immortality as well as its magnificence being linked to the glories of paradise, and the Blessed Virgin in particular, who was free from the contagion of original and actual sin and whose flesh was not subject to bodily decay as she was assumed into Heaven. Thus, in the Adoration of the Magi, dating from c. 1450 and painted by Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi (below), we see peacocks on the stable roof at Bethlehem as a visual reminder that the gift of this child to humanity is the possibility of eternal life, though their presence on the roof also serves to denote that the salvation that they represent must be invited to enter under our roof, a biblical metaphor for our bodies housing our immortal soul.

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However, Christian use of the bird has decidedly mixed signals as it has also been used by moralists as an example of the sin of human pride and attachment to riches, with the bird’s mating ritual being held up as a trope for the excesses of lust and vainglory. We become, in the words of the aphorism, as proud as a peacock. Alas, some Christians have neutralized wonderful symbols in such a way throughout history. I remember seeing some beautiful mosaics that dated from the 2nd and 3rd centuries in Cyprus, but the ones found in Christian homes on the same site and from the same period were deadly dull, lifeless, and austere. Alchemy resisted any such negative connotations; the moment when mercury turns into gold, that supreme second in an alchemist’s life, is called the cauda pavonis, Latin for the peacock’s tail.

Fortunately, the peacock was fully rehabilitated in the nineteenth century. Rather than assent to the dominant cultural puritanism, artists during the Art Nouveau movement exulted in and exulted this glorious bird. The apotheosis of this trend is James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room, which he re-designed in 1876 and 1877 to showcase the Chinese porcelain collection of a rich industrialist (below). This is definitely a case of the frame outshining the painting, and like the bird itself, it was not to be outdone by its surroundings.

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For my part, I’ve always loved this fair fowl and remember playing with peacock feathers in a vase when I was a small boy. My living room has a subdued pavonine theme with a couple of rugs, some specially commissioned chair cushions, and the Japanese silk wall scroll, or Kakejiku (pictured below). This was hand-painted by an artist named Baisai in 1918. I love coming home to this (it’s close to the door).

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The peacock carried on as a motif during the Art Deco period, with a particular prominence in jewellery, particularly for women, and there are some haunting examples of peacock brooches from the first half of the twentieth century. Their use in male jewellery is quite rare, perhaps because of their paradoxical use in female adornment, given the intricate beauty of the feathers.

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Today’s cufflinks are an unusual example of an uncommon theme (in men’s jewellery, that is). They are made out of 830 silver with a gold wash that gives a very slight suggestion of bi-colouration and the blueish-silver hue of the bird’s plumage. They are not marked but almost certainly date from the 1920s and from Denmark, as the detail of the etching and natural design place it to the Skønvirke, or beautiful work artistic movement, which produced some stunning cufflinks during this period. Denmark is, for all purposes, the real cradle of artistically interesting cufflinks, holding this mantle until other Scandinavian countries excelled in modernist silver jewellery, from the 1950s to the present day. I am somewhat partial to this pair and to the bird to which they allude, for I think that is important to forge our own values in life’s journey, rather than blandly accepting that such a gorgeous animal could possibly denote unattractive flaws. French, as it often does, beats English on this score. Rather than the singularly snide verb to strut, peacocks, and by extension people who want to show themselves or something off, faire la roue or display their wheel. Merci, ma chère langue française !

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