Birds and Death in Painting | National Gallery

Hi I’m Ed, part of the Learning team here
at the National Gallery. This series is going to explore some of the signs and
symbols hidden in our paintings. Now, artists often placed symbols very
carefully in their paintings knowing that they had an audience who would
recognise them. Some of our paintings are over 700 years old! The artists probably
hadn’t planned on that so things get lost or forgotten over time. These videos
are going to help you explore what some of these signs might mean and to find
some of the secrets hidden in our collection. Today we’re going to be
looking at birds and death because you can’t really look at birds in paintings
without death turning up as well. People have been fascinated with birds for
millennia, partly because they can do the one thing we can’t: fly. Elegant, elusive, able to escape up to the heavens, in ancient times they would
depict the human soul leaving the body at the moment of death. Now in the
National Gallery we’ve got a lot of deeply religious Christian art and birds
symbolized in those paintings quite often show the link between life, death
and the spiritual realm. Take for example the dove. The symbol of peace and good
tidings and the answer to that tricky question, how do you paint the Holy
Spirit? Well, the Holy Spirit depicted as a dove would be shown visiting its
blessings upon the most important figures in a painting, for example Jesus
Christ, the Virgin Mary, or perhaps both. You might have noticed an even more
elegant bird in paintings of Jesus and Mary, a peacock. It would represent
immortality or Christ’s resurrection. Why a peacock? Well, it was genuinely believed
in ancient times that peacocks flesh didn’t decay so what better to represent
eternal life. The eyes on its tail could also represent the all-seeing eye of the
church, and you’ll find peacocks in paintings of Greek mythology as well
and it would be representing Juno or Hera the queen of the gods. You’ll see a
lot of images of children holding or being given birds. Now, very often the
child is Christ and the bird is a goldfinch. Why a goldfinch?
Well, they’re elegant and popular pets and children would love them so it’s
reminder of a child taking childish delights in such things. But there’s
something darker here as well. There is a legend of a goldfinch that flew down to
Christ as he carried his cross up the hill to Calvary and his crucifixion. The
goldfinch plucked out a thorn from Christ’s head and a splash of blood hit
its own, leaving that distinctive red mark. So why include a goldfinch in a
picture of a child and the child Christ? Well, it’s a reminder of what ultimately
awaits him. He will grow up to be the man who sacrifices himself for all mankind. You’ll also see paintings with goldfinches in that don’t seem to be about
Christ at all. Take for example this happy family, the Graham children. Eldest
son Richard is playing a music box for the goldfinch in the cage up above. All
smiles. But it’s a little bit darker than that. Look again at the goldfinch and
it’s not flapping its wings out of joy but out of terror, because of its side
it can see a cat, wide-eyed and hungry. And over on the other side of the
painting, there is a cherub holding a scythe and an hourglass. All a little bit
dark… Well, it points to a hidden meaning which is baby Thomas down below – yes, it is a boy – died while the painting was being made, and the family decided to
keep him in the painting eternally smiling with only these few little
references in there letting us know what has actually happened. Now goldfinches
and other birds also appear in paintings that don’t have people in them at all in
still life. The goldfinch again is that symbol of Christ’s death and if the bird
represents the human soul, then it’s a reminder of all our deaths. All this will
pass, beauty will fade, and all earthly possessions must be left behind. All very
morbid – but very much in demand for the collector with money to spend on art and
it’s known as vanitas. Like this painting here – you’ve got symbols of human
mortality, snuffed out oil lamp, a ticking clock, and in case you hadn’t figured it
out yet the grinning skull looking right at you. Sometimes a bird is just a bird,
symbolising nothing more than its own beauty and of course how fabulously
wealthy its owners are. Still, that might not save you from having a traveling
scientist pop round, bunging the family pet in a glass jar and suffocating it for the education of the terrified audience. So next time you spot a bird in a painting, see if any of this helps you
decipher what it might represent. Is it just a bird, or is the artist trying to
hint at something else? If you’d like to learn more about our paintings, click
here or here. All the paintings used in this video will be listed in the
description below. Don’t forget to subscribe and leave a comment telling us
what you thought thanks so much for watching.

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