The Use of the Peacock in Christian Art

The history of the decorative use of peacocks is one that pre-dates Christianity, tied back to the Greco-Roman world. By the late second or early third century we find it also appearing in Christian art, specifically within the context of funerary frescoes and, after that, on Christian sarcophagi.  The reason for this particular pairing is no doubt rooted in the belief of the time that the flesh of peacocks was not subject to decay even after death -- something that St. Augustine references in The City of God:
For suitable properties will be communicated to the substance of the flesh by Him who has endowed the things we see with so marvellous and diverse properties, that their very multitude prevents our wonder. For who but God the Creator of all things has given to the flesh of the peacock its antiseptic property? This property, when I first heard of it, seemed to me incredible; but it happened at Carthage that a bird of this kind was cooked and served up to me, and, taking a suitable slice of flesh from its breast, I ordered it to be kept, and when it had been kept as many days as make any other flesh stinking, it was produced and set before me, and emitted no offensive smell. And after it had been laid by for thirty days and more, it was still in the same state; and a year after, the same still, except that it was a little more shrivelled, and drier.  -- Book XXI, ch. 4

From this belief then came the symbolic use of the peacock as a symbol of eternal life. This would see the use of the peacock within a Christian context expand beyond funerary usages to also start appearing in other ecclesiastical contexts such as baptismal settings -- and eventually beyond. 

This type of imagery was particularly prominent in paleochristian and early medieval art as can be seen in these historic examples coming from the sixth through twelfth centuries:

6th century

6th century

9th century

9th century

12th-13th century

With the rise of archeology in modern centuries, the use of peacocks in Christian art would see a sort of revival, appearing in architecture, mosaics, stonework, vestment textiles, metalwork and more. The following examples all come from the twentieth century as part of the paleochristian revival, frequently combined with other imagery as well. The results are, I think, quite noble and appealing:

A tabernacle door


Truly a rich symbol, rooted in an illustrious history tied to both the classical world and the Christian one.

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