The Easter Peacock

There are many symbols that we have come to associate with Easter. Aside from those that directly reference the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, there are also lambs and chicks that symbolise new life, as well as the good old Easter Bunny, whose association is less obvious (Professor Naomi Sykes explores it further in her excellent blog post on the subject). But were you aware that the (not so) humble peacock is also a symbol of resurrection?

Nowadays we are more used to the peacock’s association with pride and vanity, as in the saying “proud as a peacock”. However, the ancient Greeks believed that the flesh of the peacock never decayed, even after death, and so it became a symbol of immortality. Early Christians adopted the symbolism and the peacock thus became an emblem of the Resurrection and the eternal life of Christ. Many early Christian and Byzantine paintings and mosaics contain pictures of peacocks.

A medieval harness pendant decorated with an enamel peacock. Record ID KENT-D7CCF3 (Kent County Council, License CC-BY-SA).

The theme of resurrection and renewal was further emphasised by the fact that the male peacock sheds its tail feathers at the end of each mating season. The feathers regrow by spring, in time for the new mating season. Peacocks continued to appear in art in the medieval period and into the Renaissance, although whether every depiction of a peacock carries Christian symbolism is another question.

A silver denarius of Diva Faustina (AD 138-161), with peacock on the reverse. Record ID OXON-1B5F71 (Portable Antiquities Scheme, License CC-BY).

The Romans were partial to peacocks, both visually¬†and as a delicacy. Peacocks were associated with the goddess Juno and appear in Roman art, as well as on coinage (particularly those issued by empresses) and on objects such as nail cleaners and buckles. When they weren’t decorating objects with peacocks, they were busy eating them – particularly peacock tongues, which were a highly prized dish. Peacocks also graced the dinner tables of wealthy Europeans in the Middle Ages, when they would be served complete with their tail feathers on display.

Roman buckle plate with incised peacock decoration. Record ID SUR-B50AA8 (Surrey County Council, License CC-BY).

Of course, peacock symbolism extends beyond Christianity and western cultures. In India, the native home of the peacock, the bird is a symbol of royalty and power. It is also India’s national bird. Two golden peacocks were even incorporated into the splendid “Peacock Throne” commissioned by Shah Jahan, emperor of the vast Mughal Empire in the 17th century. The peacock features in Hinduism, as well as Islam, and can be found extensively in Indian art. You can read more about this here.

To see all examples of objects from the database with peacocks on them, click here.

For more peacock facts see this blog post!