September 22, 2023


How Art Works

Visitor Publish: “Some Notes on Parrot Symbolism in Poetry and Spiritual Artwork”

6 min read

Editor’s Notice: Nicholas Bielby contacted me after coming throughout  my publish “Parrots in Artwork.” Beneath is his essay on parrots in poetry and spiritual artwork, which provides new concepts to think about in tandem with  the issues that I’ve written beforehand. Get pleasure from! -M

“Some Notes on Parrot Symbolism in Poetry and Spiritual Artwork”

Nicholas Bielby

Detail of some of the parrots at in the chancel at the Studley Royal chapel of St. Mary, 1871-78. Image is a detail of a Creative Commons Image via Wikipedia

Element of among the carved parrots, nestled within the gold foliage, from the chancel on the Studley Royal chapel of St. Mary, 1871-78. Picture is a element of a Inventive Commons Picture through Wikipedia

Once I took a guided tour of William Burges’s gothic revival church within the grounds of Studley Royal, I used to be struck by the best way the chancel was adorned with extremely colored reduction carvings of parrots. I requested the information, David Thornton, about their significance and he didn’t know. However we determined to discover the matter additional and be in contact. What follows is the results of our joint explorations.

Macrobius information that, after the battle of Actium, the place Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, a parrot greeted the victor, “Ave Caesar” – “Hail, Caesar!” Ever for the reason that first parrot was introduced again from India by Alexander the Nice, parrots had been considered miraculous as a result of they spoke with a human voice. And what they typically mentioned was “Ave”, the Latin greeting. Due to their miraculous potential to speak, attractive plumage and rarity, parrots had been extremely valued and used as items between kings and emperors. The parrot’s greeting to Octavian, later Augustus Caesar, was subsequently, within the Christian period, taken to be a pre-figuring of the angelic greeting, “Ave Maria.” The parrot was thus related to the Virgin Mary.

It’s not clear whether or not this affiliation is the one route by which the parrot got here to symbolise the Virgin Mary. However Boehrer, in his guide “Parrot Tradition,” (2004), cites a Center English Dictionary as defining “papejai” as (i) a parrot and (ii) a woman, the Virgin Mary. He means that the rarity, worth and ornamental qualities of the parrot assist make it characterize girls usually: “and the Virgin, most treasured and delicate girl of all, stands in for all of the others.”

Maybe probably the most express proof comes from the poet John Lydgate (C15th) in his Balade in Commendation of Our Girl, the place he hails the Virgin Mary as a “popynjay plumed in clennesse.” The time period “popynjay” (popinjay) comes from the Outdated French “papingay” that means parrot, which itself derives from Arabic. After all, in English from Shakespeare’s time a minimum of the time period “popinjay” is used to explain somebody foppishly over-dressed and useless. However clearly, for Lydgate, the connotations of rarity and excessive worth are what he has in thoughts. The time period “clennesse” refers to ethical and sexual purity. And the time period ‘popinjay’ is the time period for parrots in conventional heraldry. They might not be used on coats of arms to indicate foppish vainness! That they had, partly from the Center East, connotations of knowledge and braveness, and probably extra spiritual connotations.

Round 1400, the time period “papiayes” is utilized in Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight within the heraldic description of the cloak that the women of the court docket embroider for Gawain when setting out on his quest. It’s vital that Gawain ought to be afforded the safety of the Virgin Mary, as symbolised by the parrots, since one of many main challenges for Gawain on his quest is to retain his sexual purity whereas nonetheless sustaining his popularity for courtesy.

It’s price noting that Boeher mentions two medieval church vestments embroidered with popinjays – we could presume with spiritual, Marian significance. In spite of everything, for the reason that medieval thoughts discovered symbols and correspondences in every little thing, using parrots was definitely not merely for ornamental impact however for religious that means!

The parrot usually seems alongside the Virgin Mary in artwork. Richard Verdi’s “The Parrot in Art” traces the parrot from Dürer to the fashionable day, however there are even earlier cases. Clearly, not all these parrots symbolise the Virgin, however Crivelli (c1481), Dürer, Baldung, Mantegna, Schongauer, Van Eyck and the Ms painting by the Egerton Master all function a parrot with the Virgin.

Parrot from Zaragoza version of the “Defensorium” by Fransiscus de Retz

Parrot from Zaragoza model of the “Defensorium inviolatae virginatatis beatae mariae” by Franciscus de Retz (1343-1427)

In a picture from the Zaragoza model of the “Defensorium” by Franciscus de Retz (1343-1427), a ferocious-looking parrot has a scroll issuing from its beak saying, “Ave.” It instantly follows a picture of the Annunciation. The textual content beneath the parrot illustration appears to discuss with a medieval folk-belief talked about within the “Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Artwork,” (2004), that conception takes place by means of the ear. And right here it could appear to hyperlink with the parrot’s miraculous potential to talk. I’ve tried to transliterate the textual content accurately however using medieval Spanish diacritical marks and abbreviations have made this tough. For instance, I believe it affordable to develop ‘vgo pura’ to ‘virgo pura.’ I really feel pretty assured about transcribing this a lot of the textual content:

“Ptisacus [presumably ‘psitacus’] a natura. si ave dicere valet. quare virgo pura. per ave non generaret…”

The obvious full stops would seem to point line divisions into one thing like goliardic rhymed verse, thus,

Psitacus a natura
Si Ave dicere valet
Quare virgo pura
Per ave generaret

This may be understood within the mild of the folk-belief talked about above that impregnation can happen by means of the ear – and consequently because of being greeted. It might imply one thing like, “If a parrot, by nature, has the ability to talk a greeting, why shouldn’t, by means of a greeting, a pure virgin turn out to be pregnant?” What this demonstrates is just not a lot that the parrot symbolises the Virgin Mary nevertheless it does present her shut affiliation with the parrot within the medieval thoughts.

In a while, parrots function in spiritual work, even when not instantly related to the Virgin. Rubens includes a parrot in a painting of the Holy Family. Each Dürer and Rubens embody a parrot in photos of Adam and Eve on the Fall, when consuming the apple. Right here, I believe, the symbolism is completely different. Skelton (early C16th) refers back to the parrot, in Speke, Parrot, as “a byrde of Paradyse”. Possibly Dürer’s parrot, completely unaware of what’s going on, merely signifies paradise, unaware of the hazard it’s in. In Rubens’ image, the parrot is trying anxiously in the direction of the serpent, conscious of the hazard. It will be far-fetched to see these parrots as long-term symbols of hope, the promise of the New Adam coming by means of Mary.

Typically, by the point we get to the C16th and C17th, “popinjay” has come solely to have its present derogatory that means. It spiritual connotations appear to have been misplaced. For Dutch artists, parrots merely characterize affluence, conspicuous consumption and commerce connections with unique locations; and as time goes on, typically as symbols of vainness. Maybe the Reformation, prevalent within the Low Nations, triggered the Marian symbolism to be misplaced.

Within the C19th, William Burges, follower of Pugin, was an awesome medievalist and collector of Dürer. Considerably, his church at Studley Royal, adorned within the chancel with a frieze of brightly colored parrots, is devoted to the Virgin. It’s a truthful guess that he had rediscovered the medieval Marian symbolism of the parrot. The identical symbolic use of parrots will be discovered elsewhere in his work, for instance within the chapel at Mount Stuart on Bute and in Cardiff Fort.

Nicholas Bielby is a retired school member of the College of Training at Leeds College. He’s a poet and editor of

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