Avian apparitions

Birds and avian symbolism have been on my mind over the past few months as the book I’m working on has a chapter devoted to fantasy and science-fiction. Madame d’Aulnoy, a seventeenth-century writer of great sophistication as well as a redoubtable and unreconstructed feminist – she attempted to have her much older, tyrannical gay husband framed for treason and dispatched by execution, aided by her mother – uses birds a great deal in her tales. In one of my favourite stories, “La Belle aux cheveux d’or” (Beauty with the golden hair), the hero, Avenant, goes on a quest to win the hand of a queen, on behalf of his ruler but the handsome courtier ultimately ends up marrying her himself after the king inadvertently poisons himself when attempting to use a beauty potions. There are no hapless heroines waiting to be rescued in d’Aulnoy’s fantasy world, only strong women who decide their own destinies and choose whom to marry. Avenant (literally “Comely”) encounters some trapped animals on his journey and instinctively saves them. It is interesting that two of the distressed animals are birds (an owl and a crow), which leads the adventurer to reflect on humanity’s cruelty to the vulnerable. It also functions as a commentary on his own journey from being the pawn of a ruthless and vain king of whom he is obviously the lover to the liberating embrace of a heterosexual relationship (as Madame d’Aulnoy sees it, almost certainly a reflection of her own loveless marriage to a violent man who preferred young male favourites). The bird is a very rich and deep-seated trope often symbolizing freedom and independence, and it features often in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, for example. At the same time, a caged or tame bird stands for the manipulative and unsavoury side of our human natures. I can think of fewer sadder and more perverse sights than that of a bird confined in a small cage.

La Colombe Picasso MOME 1948 lithograph

Avian symbolism can be as diverse as it is rich. Eagles and other aggressive birds often represent predatory behaviour whereas the owl is a sign of wisdom. Paul Tipper devoted a monograph to the subject, The Dream Machine: Avian Imagery in “Madame Bovary” (Durham: DMLS, 1994), in which he proposes  a “sliding scale of suggestivity” depending on the particular bird in question.  He lists twelve variables that affect our interpretation, including flight, size, plumage, whether the bird is mundane or exotic, and whether or no it is a conventional symbol. One bird that is most certainly conventional and universal in figurative terms is the dove. A dove, almost always a white one, is a ubiquitous symbol of peace, accord, and spirituality.  This is quite astounding in one sense since, as the lithograph by Picasso amply shows, above (1949; MOMA), the dove is very closely related to and distinctly resembles the humble and despised pigeon.

The white dove has a particular biblical role. In the Old Testament, one is sent to Noah with an olive branch in its beak as a sign that the Flood has ended and divine wrath has been appeased. In the New Testament, it has a close affinity with the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity and who comes to dwell in our bodies making them temples. In some concrete way, the dove represents the presence of God in our very beings or acts as a messenger of the divine, a very curious symbolism given that the bird is not the largest, most beautiful, or even most fascinating of birds. The captivating flight of the hummingbird or the dulcet tones of the nightingale could have, for example, been a more immediate sign of the other world. El Greco’s peculiar style captures something of the strangeness of the dove as a religious signifier in his representation of Pentecost, below, painted at the tail end of the sixteenth century, one of the most turbulent and conflicted periods in human history.


The scene is one of confusion. Fifty days after Easter, the Apostles and Mary, in some disarray, convened and suddenly the Holy Spirit came down on them, causing them to speak in tongues and have flames of fire. They who were seeking elucidation find themselves linguistically divided and unable to communicate.  In some deep sense, El Greco captures the strangeness of life beyond this natural life, the supernatural encroaching on the normal rhythm of things, best seen in the contorted postures of some of the figures in the painting. However, the most remarkable element in the painting is the very marked division between shadow and light. The Holy Spirit is depicted as appearing out of nowhere and catching the spectators unaware. Some part of us seeks this kind of assistance, aid sweeping in and sweeping us off our feet, part of the appeal of Superman. On the other hand, the bird also looks like a massive burst of electricity, a mini supernova illuminating the gathering like a lamp. This, I think, is the real potency of this painting. In a real way, El Greco manages to picture the bizarreness not of belief but rather of our own human nature. A light is put to the dark cracks of our psyches, our struggle to be better, to do good, and to put our own desires to one side and think of others and other considerations. Somewhat paradoxically given its theme, the painting ultimately focuses on humanity.

Mass Pentecost

As if to underscore the unusual and unworldly aspect of Pentecost, its liturgical colour is not white, as would be expected, but rather red, otherwise used to celebrate martyrs’ feastdays in the Mass. This is perhaps not as curious as might seem, since the invisible force of the Spirit taking hold of our being is not only representative of divine love but also human love. For what is more intangible, inexplicable, and unexpected than love? It is the force over which we have no control, that is irrational, and so necessary, but only so when it is absent. A person who has never known any kind of love is someone to be pitied and avoided. The Church has always taught that human love can ennoble us and make us receptive to the love of God. Just as with our attraction towards a beautiful person can draw us in and we fall in love with their personality, so, too, does the magnificent beauty of the Church’s rites, the vestments, and Latin plainsong, also tempt us to discover the deeper meaning to which they stand as a portal. Once this is crossed, we will see the world with new eyes, as through a glass darkly, a delicious image of St Paul suggesting that the world itself is the illusion and the supernatural life is the authentic version of ourselves. And the same applies to human love. Hugh Grant’s character William observes in the charming Notting Hill (1999), that falling for someone is like taking love heroin, in that takes a hold of you and drives you to want more.  On this note, it must be added that doves do not always denote pure love. Various legends about Semiramis, a Babylonian queen who was the wife of Nimrod, depict her unbridled and insatiable lust yet most accounts relate that she had been brought up by doves.

jan 2012 983

Today’s cufflinks are made out of sterling silver and bear the maker’s mark of Creed. This is the name of a company that specializes in Catholic religious goods, particularly jewellery, in 1946 and still going. They don’t make cufflinks any more, but this pair are very striking in the modernist lines of an ancient symbol, which dates them to the mid to late 1950s. They were almost certainly priest’s cufflinks. I particularly like the detail, such as the eyes, adding new life to a trope that bridges the taboo association between sexuality and spirituality, yet nonetheless a very old and biblical one; in the gently erotic lines of Solomon in the Song of Songs (6:9), his beloved is compared to an unblemished dove. This allusion also references the sacrifice and pain of love, since a spotless dove was a sacrificial offering in Jewish Temple worship.


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