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Birds, Symbolism of

christ’s holy dove human

The symbolism of birds in medieval art derives from the same sources and motivations as medieval animal symbolism in general. Particular birds mentioned in the Bible feature in pictorial narratives and also as independent symbols for human conduct and religious concepts.


For example, the DOVE , which plays a critical role in the story of *Noah and the *Deluge, is a symbol of peace and purity. Hence, doves are offered at the Temple in scenes such as the *Presentation and *Purification in the Temple. The dove descends from *heaven at the moment of *Christ’s *Baptism as a symbol of the *Holy Spirit and thus also appears in representations of the *Annunciation, *Pentecost, and *Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. The dove is also the attribute of several *saints *Gregory, *


The strong and high-soaring EAGLE is the attribute of Saint *John the Evangelist, as well as a symbol of Christ’s *Resurrection, of human salvation, courage, and generosity. The proud and beautiful PEACOCK may symbolize vanity but more often is seen to represent the Resurrection (because it was believed that peacocks’ flesh did not decay) and the “all-seeing” *Church, because of the “eyes” of its tail feathers. The PELICAN symbolizes Christ’s sacrifice because it was said to pierce its own breast to revive its offspring by feeding them with its own blood, after having killed them in anger. The mythical long-lived PHOENIX , which rises periodically, refreshed from the flames of its own funeral pyre, is also a symbol of Christ’s Resurrection and triumph over *death.


Other birds, such as the RAVEN , have less positive connotations. The raven was also featured at the Deluge, sent out from Noah’s ark before the waters had subsided; ravens can thus symbolize evil omens, death, and the *Devil. However, ravens also are described as having brought food to several *saints and holy figuresAnthony and *


Birds may also be used as symbols for human *souls, and frequently inhabit scenes of Paradise.

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