Lessons from the Peacock

2016-05-10 13.22.11

Recently I visited Lake Bled in Slovenia – a gorgeous place with a great castle and an island church.

People have lived in that area a long time and they embraced the Christian faith early on.

An evidence of this is the 6th century peacock brooch that was found here during recent archaeological digs. This peacock brooch has now become a very popular symbol of Lake Bled.

I was intrigued to know why the peacock should symbolise the Christian faith so much that people in the 6th century should wear brooches in that form.

A little background research led me to understand that the peacock was considered to represent resurrection, renewal and immortality.

The medieval bestiaries explain the in shedding old feathers each year and replacing them with newer, more brilliant we see a sign of renewal. This is a nice picture of the transformation into Christ-likeness that Christians are meant to grow into. This symbolism was the reasons that peacock feathers were used to decorate churches at Easter and Christmas and the peacock often figures in Christian mosaics in ancient churches.

Another aspect of the peacock symbolism is the ancient belief that the flesh of the peacock did not decay. A belief that St. Augustine set out to test himself:

“Who was it but He, that has made the flesh of a dead peacock to remain always sweet and without any putrefaction? I thought this impossible at first, and by chance being at meat in Carthage, a boiled peacock was served up, and I, to try the conclusion, took of some of the fleshy part of the breast and cause it to be laid up. After a certain space (sufficient for the putrefaction of any ordinary flesh) I called for it, and smelling it found no ill taste in it at all. I laid it up again and thirty days after, I looked again, and it was the same as I left it. The like I did a whole year after, and found no change, save that it was somewhat more dry and solid. ” (Book 21, chapter 4)[1]

Having flesh which did not decay even after death led to the peacock becoming a symbol of Christ, another reason for its use as a symbol in early Christian art.

When the peacock displays its tail it seems like we see many ‘eyes’. This led to an association with the all-seeing eye of God; and the all-seeing Church, who watches over her children continually, day and night.

The exceptional beauty of the peacock was seen as symbolic of the wonder and beauty of God; the beatific vision –  the direct perception and knowledge of God as He truly is, enjoyed by Angels, Christ, and the Saints in Heaven –  another reason for it becoming a decorative motif on tombs.

The medieval bestiaries describe the peacock as a destroyer of serpents and tell us that it could swallow poisonous venom without harm. Indeed the poisons ingested were believed to be used to create its colourful plumage. For this reason, the blood of a peacock was believed to dispel evil spirits, and its feathers and meat to cure snake-bite and sickness.

Peacocks are also known to eat poisonous plants with no ill effects, again strengthening the association as a symbol of incorruptibility and immortality.

Medieval bestiaries made much of the peacock and its symbolism. It was believed that the peacock was offended by its ugly feet. So much so, that he would stop in his vain strutting and shriek angrily whenever he caught a glimpse of this blemish in his otherwise beautiful and dignified appearance. The moral lesson was drawn that Christians ought likewise to lament and hate their own spiritual imperfections.

Another source cites;

“According to the Bestiaries, when the peacock awakes, it cries out in fear because it dreams that it has lost its beauty: so the Christian must fear to lose the good qualities with which God has endowed his soul.”[2]

‘The peacock’s brightly coloured feathers are said to signify the Gentiles who have been adorned by Christ with “the grace and splendour of many virtues”’[3]

‘The peacock’s tail signifies foresight because a tail, inasmuch as it is behind, signifies what is to come, and the fact that it is full of eyes signifies the foreseeing of the future.’[4]

Some lessons from the peacock were particular applied to preachers and church leaders;

“The peacock has hard flesh, resistant to decay, which can only with difficulty be cooked over a fire by a cook, or can scarcely be digested in the stomach, because of the heat of its liver. Such are the minds of teachers; they neither burn with the flame of desire, nor are they set alight by the heat of lust.

The peacock has a fearful voice, as does a preacher when he threatens sinners with the unquenchable fire of Gehenna.

It walks in an unaffected way, in the sense that the preacher does not overstep the bounds of humility in his behaviour.

It has a serpent’s head, as the preacher’s mind is held in check by wise circumspection. But the sapphire colour of its breast signifies that the preacher longs in his mind for heaven.

The red colour in the peacock’s feathers signifies his love of contemplation. The length of the tail indicates the length of the life to come.

The fact the peacock seems to have eyes in its tail, is a reference to every teacher’s capacity to foresee the danger that threatens each of us at the end. The colour green, [on the peacock’s serpent-like head], is also present in the tail, that the end might match the beginning. The diversity of the peacock’s colouring, therefore, signifies the diversity of the virtues.

Note also that the peacock, when it is praised, raises its tail, in the same way that any churchman gets ideas above his station out of vainglory at the praise of flatterers.

The peacock sets out its feathers in an orderly fashion; in the same way, a teacher believes that no matter he does, he has done it in an orderly way. But when the peacock lifts its tail, it exposes its rear, in the same way that whatever is praised in the conduct of the teacher is derided when he succumbs to pride. The peacock, therefore, should keep its tail down, just as what a teacher does, he should do with humility.[5]


Many, many lessons to learn from the peacock!


[1] The Symbolism of the Peacock by Elaine Jordan (accessed at http://www.traditioninaction.org/religious/f023_Peacock.htm)

[2] Arthur H. Collins, M.A., Symbolism of Animals and Birds represented in English Church Architecture, New York: McBride,  Nast & Company, 1913, p33

[3] Debra Hassig, The Mark of the Beast: The Medieval Bestiary in Art, Life, and Literature,  Routledge, 2013, p61

[4] Richard De Fournival (tr Jeanette Beer), Master Richard’s Bestiary of Love and Response, C13th text, Purdue University Press, 1999, p17

[5] Aberdeen Bestiary, Folio 60v, 60r, a manuscript written and illuminated in England around 1200


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