Renaissance Ornithofauna

Fra Angelico, Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1451-1453. Washington, National Gallery of Art. 

This article talks about some of the symbolic icons of renaissance painting and in particular the ones representing the world of Birds, which had gone unnoticed until then. It also stresses the need to determine species properly in order to carefully analyse the symbolic contents and help to discover the authors of anonymous works.

Since ancient Egyptian times birds are often a symbol for human souls; they sometimes have a human head, even in Hellenic iconography. […] In general, birds, like angels, are symbols of thought, imagination and the speed of the relations of the spirit.
Eduard Cirlot

The words of Eduard Cirlot with which we start this text show the fascination that birds have always awoken in men. For the Egyptians, they embodied human souls, and in classical mythology they are the symbol of numerous deities (such as Zeus’ eagle or Athena’s owl). This prominence reaches its zenith in the Christian tradition, in which the bird stands as a symbol of Christ, both of the Passion and other Christian epiphenomena (like the Assumption of the Virgin, the angels and saints). Therefore, the world of birds has been very present in the history of art and its symbolic use has spread particularly during the Renaissance, in a surprisingly rich and diverse way. However, there has been a certain lack of knowledge by the art historians, who have belittled their prominence when they have not erroneously identified the different species. All this has produced a gap in the study of the symbolic role of birds, as well as a great confusion about the actual sign they represent.

And, nevertheless, in any visit to an art gallery, many species that go unnoticed to the visitor are discovered. Pigeons, peacocks, turtledoves, partridges, goldfinches, parrots… are interspersed with the diverse pictorial ornaments and perfectly integrated. It is uncommon to find in the synopsis of a work of art (a brief and limited text) some allusion as to why that bird is in the hands of the Child or next to the saint, and the majority of the visitors interpret it as yet another choice of the artist, like a touch of colour, or, simply, as an unaffordable extravagance. This way, a symbolic language, a message from the artist to the observer, is irretrievably lost because there is no interlocutor, and the possibilities for the communication of the history of art are unnecessarily wasted.


A good example of this symbolic use is found in Fra Angelico’s Adoration of the Magi (finished by Filippo Lippi), which is kept at the National Gallery in Washington. In this panel the painter crowns Bethlehem’s stable with a giant and disproportionate peacock, as big as the ox and donkey. Anyone who sees the painting – with golden tones that somehow remind us of Gentile da Fabriano and his famous adoration – is left surprised by the bird’s disproportion, and more so when Fra Angelico – such a good painter that he was known by the nickname Beato Angelico because he painted like the angels (his given name is Guido di Pietro) – has carefully worked on the perspective, and the retinue accompanying the magi is skilfully integrated in a perfectly calculated vanishing point. It does not look like that disproportion worried the angelic painter in excess, and one even gets the feeling that he wanted it so as to leave the peacock conspicuously standing out. Because, as Charbonneau-Lassay points out in The Bestiary of Christ, an inexhaustible book full of suggestions, this bird is the emblem of Jesus Christ, and it appeals to his resurrection. Peacocks lose their dazzling feathers each winter and get them back in the spring: the recovery of their true nature – which has also been applied to deciduous trees, which lose their foliage and regrow it every year –caused it to be interpreted as a messenger of the resurrection of Christ.  But in this panel, the peacock follows with its gaze the relentless chase of a pheasant by a bird of prey: this last bird, because it is red (as it also happens with other animals, such as the squirrel or the partridge), often symbolises the devil. And thus, Fra Angelico, with his use of bird motifs in his panel, illustrates the triumph of good over evil.

Benozzo Gozzoli, too, in his monumental Cappella dei Magi mural, would use falcons and sparrowhawks to pursue a pheasant and other bad omen birds, such as the magpie. Even a goshawk haughtily rests with a hunted gutted rabbit (the rabbit is the symbol of fertility, especially associated with Venus and lust, as can be observed in the disturbing frescoes by Francesco del Cossa at the Palazzo Schifanoia, in Ferrara). The magpie is pursued, while a goldfinch, symbol of the Passion of Christ, is left free. Artists like to oppose the symbolic birds, the dichotomy between good and evil: Van Eyck, in the panel of the Chancellor Rolin, will also use the peacock and the magpie, and Piero della Francesca uses the magpie and the goldfinch1. The magpie, as Angelo De Gubernatis writes in Zoological Mythology, is related to disease and consumption, and therefore with death. For this reason, Brueghel places it perched on top of a gallows, watching the men from that vantage point.


However, sometimes completely unexpected birds appear in the artwork. Venetian Carlo Crivelli is well-known for his evanescent and somewhat Gothic Madonnas, with long fingers and hieratic gestures. Around the Virgin and the Child he tends to place a plentiful garland, full of fruit, apples, pears, peaches, bunches of grapes, and, ineluctably, a cucumber. Fruit, slightly indecent, is a Marian symbol, an attribute of Mary’s purity, but at the same time it is the painter’s mark, his signature, his indisputable anagram. Crivelli’s artwork is often full of other naturalistic motifs, like flowers or birds, especially goldfinches and swallows. In this sense, in the Brera Art Gallery is a work titled Madonna and Child squeezing a finch in his hands (Madonna in trono col Bambino che stringe tra le mani un fringuello). The Virgin appears crowned with a garland of fruit (with the opulent cucumber), and at her feet rests a handful of plums, roses, and… a bean. As scholar Mirella Levi d’Ancona explains, the bean symbolises the Incarnation of Christ «because it grows anywhere spontaneously and revives the world, like Christ does with the Passion». But that is not the most unique part of this work, because, despite its descriptive and exact title, the bird the Child is squeezing is not a finch but a golden oriole! Until then, nobody had reproduced this beautiful bird with such precision. What does Crivelli want to tell us? We do not know for sure, but what is certain is that this bird is by no means a finch (how was it possible to mix them up?), as art historians nonchalantly declare. The golden oriole (Oriolus oriolus) feeds especially on cherries and other early fruit, and it is possible that it is some sort of allusion to the youth of Christ.


Crivelli was an expert painter and his naturalistic details are second to none. But Cosmè Tura also seeks uniqueness, originality and an author’s mark by these twists and turns. In his Saint Jerome, kept at the London National Gallery, he introduces a unique wallcreeper (Trichodroma muraria), a bird exclusive to European high mountain areas. It is a perfect naturalistic painting which, all in all, has so far gone unnoticed (oddly we also find this species in the Madonna dello Zodiaco, at the Venice Academy. This bird has a habit of climbing up cliffs feeding on spiders and insects that take refuge in the crevices of the rocks – the reason it is called “aranyer” (spidery) in some areas of Catalonia. In this panel there is also a small owl, a bird of bad omen: this way, the painter of Ferrara opposes the maleficent small owl to the beneficial wallcreeper, which destroys spiders and other diabolical arthropods.

Another opposition of this kind is found in the Annunciation, which is preserved in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, in Ferrara. There is a squirrel on the Madonna, generally interpreted as a symbol of evil due to its quarrelsome and rebellious character. In front of her, and over the Archangel Gabriel, is a grey-headed woodpecker (Picus canus)2, devourer of hidden worms. Charbonneau-Lassay writes about the woodpecker, specifically the green woodpecker (Picus viridis): «As the woodpecker’s symbolism refers to a vermivorous bird such as the white wagtail, it has the same conception: Jesus Christ, irreducible adversary of Satan, pursues the enemies of the souls no matter where they go.»

This way, Cosmè Tura’s naturalistic wisdom allows him to illustrate with such dazzling and conspicuous symbols the unrelenting persecution of the enemies of the souls.


As we can see, a correct identification of the fauna of a pictorial work can provide information of great interest, not only about the hidden language, but also on the possible authorship of the work. As I pointed out in the article Natura oculta. Simbologia en la pintura gòtica catalana (‘Hidden nature. Symbology in Gothic Catalan paintings’, 2003), many subsequent considerations can depend on the correct treatment of the naturalistic symbols, and these can even help establish influences and connections between artists. When representing the elements of nature – with their intrinsic symbolic content – artists have their preferences and they can even be interpreted as their personal stylistic trait.

A good example are the two cranes that appear in the anonymous panel which is kept in the convent of the Capuchin nuns of Castellón and which represents Saint Francis receiving the stigmata, following a well-known model of Jan Van Eyck. As I noted in the previously mentioned article, a fifteenth century Spanish painter could have hardly painted those two cranes so perfectly, and much less a possible Valencian artist. Those two cranes, treated with remarkable indifference by scholars of the work (to the point that art historian José Gómez Frechina mixes them up with herons!), provide a substantial information about the art movement to which the author belongs. Only a painter who was very knowledgeable about their symbolic meaning (cranes eat reptiles, and so they refer to Christ, as an emblem of the principle of good against evil), and their naturalistic habits and characteristics, could manage to paint these two birds with such care, perfection and wisdom. Like, for instance, Hans Memling, who, on the reverse of the panel of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Lawrence, which is kept at the London National Gallery, paints some splendid cranes keeping vigil. At any rate, the authorship of this panel of Castellón remains a mystery, although everything points to a Flemish painter, maybe even Van Eyck himself.


The bearded vulture and its copy: original by Giovannino de’ Grassi (a), at the end of the fourteenth century, and copy of this model by Benozzo Gozzoli (b), 1459-1461 (Cappella dei Magi, Florence).

Because the naturalist immediately detects when the painter has painted after nature – as those two cranes –, or when he has used book sources. The copy is always altered, the brushstroke loses sharpness, the lines become imprecise. That is why, sometimes, some birds are unrecognisable, and often, until the original source is not discovered, they cannot be distinguished. Benozzo Gozzoli is a good and honest painter (the first sentence Vasari dedicates to him is beautiful: «He who pursues the path of excellence in his labours, although it is, as men say, both stony and full of thorns, finds himself finally at the end of the ascent on a broad plain, with all the blessings that he has desired»).  Gozzoli, in the Cappella dei Magi of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, introduced many naturalistic elements: swallows, magpies, falcons and leopards of the Medicis… Gozzoli also painted several birds next to a lagoon: a finch, a wagtail, a goldfinch, a duck, a jay (and not a pheasant like Marion Opitz says in her recent study of Gozzoli’s art!), and a big ugly bird, rigid, with a bristly crest, irate eyes and disturbing claws. In reality it is a copy of Giovannino de’ Grassi’s taccuino, a spectacular book of designs (with the presence of a magnificent peacock) which is kept at the Biblioteca Civica Angelo Mai in Bergamo, and that in this case carefully represents a bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), although in the catalogue it appears as a «vulture». But Gozzoli, when copying this bearded vulture, doubted whether or not to give it some details that he would discover in De’ Grassi’s drawing, like the distinguished moustache. This way he invented that bizarre bird, unusual and unique in the history of art, with ruffled feathers and untamed gaze.


Because of all of this, when working with the different naturalistic motifs that appear in the pictorial works, we have to find out whether they have been painted after nature and in which iconographic tradition they are inserted. The naturalistic details are good indicators (even bioindicators) of the environment in which an artist has raised. A Flemish artist will hardly paint red coral or use goldfinches (symbols of the Passion of Christ that are recurring in Italian paintings), and a Mediterranean artist will hardly paint cranes.

And yet, sometimes we have to pay attention to other more spurious reasons when studying a symbol. It is the case of Albrecht Dürer’s work known in Spanish texts as the Virgen del verderón, literally, the Madonna with the Greenfinch  (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). It is a rather unique Madonna, made by the painter from Nuremberg during his second stay in Italy, with the presence of a little bird on the arm of the Child. The German name for the composition is Madonna mit zeisig, literally, the «Madonna with the Siskin». This way, in the Spanish transcriptions we go from the siskin to the greenfinch without anyone caring too much. At this point, the scholar of iconography Erwin Panofsky writes in The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer: «The Madonna with the Greenfinch has suffered greatly at the hands of restorers, and now appears a little shrill and strident […]. From an iconographic point of view, the most remarkable aspect is not the greenfinch perched on the left arm of the baby Jesus, but the presence of a little Saint John approaching the group by the right to gift the Virgin with a lily of the valley.» However, and here is what is most formidable, this bird on the arm of Jesus is not a greenfinch! It is not even a siskin… Rather, this bird seems a badly (re)painted goldfinch, or, to put it this way, a bird that «has suffered greatly at the hands of restorers». The fact that its wings are half-spread has undoubtedly made a correct identification more difficult. The goldfinch feeds on thistle, and, according to tradition, it helped Christ during the Passion by removing the thorns from his forehead. As Louis Charbonneau-Lassay writes: «The goldfinch, the robin and the finch, moved by compassion before the suffering of Jesus, began to remove from his divine flesh the ends of the Crown of Thorns. The three were wounded by the thorns, bathed still in the divine blood, and so parts of their bodies were gloriously marked: the goldfinch won the red cap it wears on its head, and the robin and the finch their chest the colour of blood. And as a perpetual legacy of honour, their descendants have participated in that privilege.» And it is precisely this emotional correlation ecological and religious which explains the presence of goldfinches, finches and robins in the Renaissance painting… But how can we justify a greenfinch, a siskin, or even a serin, on the arm of Jesus?

Be that as it may, all this results in the need to correctly determine the naturalistic motifs present in the works of art. At the same time, a greater communication in museums about the why of all those naturalistic elements in the works of Renaissance painters is necessary. They are not a fatuous and gratuitous ornament: hidden behind all these birds are words, messages, moral precepts that it is a pity not to grasp. Museums waste with all these details attractive and engaging motifs to communicate the history of art and the vision man has of nature. Surely a correct indication would give more enjoyment to visitors and help them go in depth into the depths of the work of art more easily.

1. Art historian Lucia Impelluso, in her book  Nature and its Symbols, mixes up this magpie with a barn swallow! (Go back)

2. We would like to thank the naturalist Albert Masó for his contribution in identifying this species. (Go back)

Sparrowhawk chasing a pheasant B. Gozzoli, Procession of the Magus Melchior, ca. 1459-1461. Cappella dei Magi. Florence, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi.


«The peacock follows with its gaze a bird of prey’s relentless chase of a pheasant: this bird, because of its reddish colour, often symbolises the devil»


Carlo Crivelli, Madonna in trono col Bambino che stringe tra le mani un fringuello, 1482. Milan, Brera Art Gallery.


Cosmè Tura. Annunciation, 1469. Ferrara, Museo dell’Opera.


Cosmè Tura. Saint Jerome, 1474. London, National Gallery.


«Cranes eat reptiles, and so they refer to Christ, as an emblem of the principle of good against evil»


Master of the Porziuncola. St. Francis receiving the stigmata. Convent of the Capuchins, Castellón. Below, detail of the cranes.


Part of the reverse of the Saint John the Baptist and Saint Lawrence panel (ca. 1480) by Hans Memling, which is kept at the London National Gallery.

Albrecht Dürer, Madonna with the Siskin, 1506. Berlin, Staatliche Museum.


Charbonneau-Lassay, L. (1996, 1997): El bestiario de Cristo. In OLATEÑA De, José J. [edit.]. Palma de Mallorca.

Cirlot, J.-E. (1992): Diccionario de símbolos. Ed. Labor. Barcelona.

Domínguez, M. (2000): «Natura i símbol», en: A. Solano (ed.): De civilitate: escrits sobre dansa i l’humanisme, València, Acadèmia dels Nocturns, Universitat de València.

—— (2002): «Opus naturae. Assaig sobre els orígens de la il·lustració naturalística», en: Dibuixar la natura, Universitat de València.

—— (2003): «Natura oculta. Simbologia en la pintura gòtica catalana», L’Avenç 284: 48-55.

Gubernatis, A. De (2003): Mitología zoológica. In OLATEÑA De, José J. [edit.]. Palma de Mallorca.

Levi d’Ancona, M., The garden of renaissance. Botanical symbolism in Italian painting. Leo Olschki Editore. Florence.

© Mètode 2014 - 47. About Nature - Issue 47. Autumn 2005
Editor-in-chief of Mètode.