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


Gedaliah-itis – The Disaster of Nice without Nous

The book of Jeremiah is about leadership. Mostly it’s about bad leadership.

Israel’s leaders are unfaithful to God and the covenant and they disobedience brings down God’s judgement upon the nation.

Bad men who are bad leaders.

Which isn’t so surprising.

I have written previously about Ebed-Melech, the African eunuch and royal slave, who gave wise and courageous leadership to the people, in spite of the weakness of the king (see “Less than a man, less than a Jew, more than a King”).

A good man who was a good leader.

However, there is a further complication when we consider Gedaliah. For he was undoubtedly a good man, but sadly he was a poor leader.

Gedaliah was the son of a good man who was also a man of faith. He had a position of influence in the royal court and supported Jeremiah against his enemies who tried to have him killed (Jeremiah 26:24).

Once the destruction Jeremiah had foretold fell upon Jerusalem with the Babylonian sacking of the city in 586 B.C., Gedaliah was chosen by the Babylonian rulers as governor of the conquered province (Jeremiah 40:5).

Jeremiah found safe haven and refuge in Gedaliah’s home, and, as a prophet of God, can continue there to give God’s guidance to the nation.

Gedaliah inspires confidence in the people. Because of his personal character those who had fled the Babylonians return to Israel. Gedaliah encourages the people to go back and work the land. Which they do, and an abundant and bountiful harvest is gathered in (Jeremiah 40:11-12).

Sounds pretty idyllic, doesn’t it. All the nobles and the great and good have been taken off to Babylon. Gedaliah is left in charge of a rag tag group of country bumpkins, but they are working well together, life is going on.

But then…

Some soldiers, still living on the run in the countryside get some intelligence that the king of the Ammonites has sent an assassin to kill Gedaliah. The assassin is Ishmael son of Nethaniah, a man with connections to the royal family.

Gedaliah doesn’t believe this intelligence. Even after the army officers do all they can to convince him of the threat.

Lo and behold, a short while later, Ishmael turns up at Gedaliah’s door with ten men in tow.

In a kindly act of stunning stupidity, Gedaliah invites them in, sets out a feast for them. Which they take together and, during which, Ishmael (a name which ironically means ‘Man of God’) jumps up and promptly kills Gedaliah, as well as all the Jews and Babylonians present.

Gedaliah just couldn’t imagine anyone would want to hurt him.

He couldn’t imagine that anyone could betray him like that.

He couldn’t imagine that anyone could offend against the almost sacred duty of hospitality like that.

Because he couldn’t imagine it, he walked right into it. Sauntered even.

A good man, a terrible leader.

Why did Ishmael act like that? Perhaps he resented the fact that he had not been made governor by the Babylonians? Maybe he regarded Gedaliah as a collaborator?

Whatever his motivation, his actions had disatrous results. They led to the complete destruction of the land. Pretty soon after, fearing reprisals from the Babylonians, the remaining population flees to Egypt, only to find disaster strikes them there as Babylon rapidly succeeds in conquering Egypt.

Jesus told his disciples ;

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.

Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16, KJV)

Christian leaders need these skills too.

Wise to discern potential problems, alert to possible wrong-doing and wickedness.

Yet, harmless – not giving offence, not provoking anyone.

A hard balancing act to maintain.

To be alert to every possible ruse and skulduggery that might be being perpetrated against you, taking place within your own Christian community – yet gentle and inoffensive as much as that is possible.

The Christian church is currently reeling from the results of Gedaliah-itis.

Child abuse scandals, sexual sin, financial impropriety – write your own list.

All the result of Gedaliah-itis, leaders who assume the best of everyone, who don’t look too closely at things, who prefer to have a myopic benevolent regard over their churches. Who just refuse to believe bad news.

Gedaliah-itis – The disaster of nice without nous.

Saint Paul’s Crown of Failure

I have been thinking recently about St Paul and the rather shocking word picture he paints of himself and his ministry in 2 Cor. 11 and 12.

He goes out of his way to present himself in negative ways;

  • as a scandal (publicly flogged by the authorities),
  • as possibly cursed by God (shipwrecked three times),
  • certainly cursed by men (both Jews and Gentiles),
  • and often, as a cold and hungry outcast.

He concludes this sorry picture by deliberately reversing a Roman award for bravery, the ‘Corona Muralis’.

This award, a sort of Roman ‘Victoria Cross’, was a crown of gold awarded to the first soldier over the wall in the besieging of a city.

The surviving soldier (and there weren’t that many) would go to Rome and give on oath an account of his actions.

Once his story was corroborated he would be awarded this golden crown, crenelated like a city wall.

St. Paul humiliates himself by turning this image upside down.

He swears on oath to the Corinthians that when things got ‘hot’ in Damascus he was first over the wall –

but he wasn’t entering the city, he was fleeing it!

Thus St. Paul spends nearly two whole chapters deliberately shaming and humiliating himself, recording and recounting to the Corinthians his failures, his misfortunes, his weaknesses. He does this, because for him it is the very basis of his ministry –

“For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Cor 12:10b.

In his self-humiliation he makes a creative space in which the power of the Holy Spirit can work.

We see the same approach in the life of Jesus. He seemed to go out of his way to scandalise the moral majority –

  • he frequented the inappropriate,
  • he touched the untouchable,
  • he did the unthinkable.

As Westerners we can probably not even imagine the horror of the disciples as Jesus began to take off his outer robe, put a towel around his waist and started to wash their feet.

That the Master, the exalted Rabbi, the Prophet, maybe even the Messiah should voluntarily undertake a task so demeaning that not even a slave could be forced to do it was nothing less than scandalous.

I spent 3 years training for Christian ministry. I don’t think that we spent more than one afternoon thinking about the place of humility in ministry.

Rather we concentrated on developing our professionalism and ministry skills.

We were there to learn how to impress and influence others by our abilities and knowledge, how to inspire confidence so that others would follow our lead.

It strikes me that either Jesus and St. Paul were mistaken, or that we have lost sight of what true Christian ministry is all about.

God help us all.