Recently I wrote about pigeons and pelicans in Christian imagery.
Here in Omaha, St. Peter’s Church recently underwent a massive restoration. It was nice before and is absolutely stunning now. On the apse wall there is an unusual creature depicted. I have seen pheasants, turkeys, eagles and vultures around town, but never a peacock. What’s the deal?
In ancient times, there was a popular myth that peacocks’ flesh did not decay after death. Thus, the bird became a symbol of immortality and eternal life. Much like the pelican, simple observation could have debunked this legend, but it is happy for us since many centuries later, the peacock remains a beautiful and interesting part of our rich Christian visual vocabulary.
In medieval times, more attention was paid to the annual shedding and regrowth of the male peacock’s vibrant tail feathers, and it became a sign of renewal and rebirth. (The other side of the sanctuary at St. Peter’s features a phoenix, a more popular symbol of the same idea. Together they are a reminder of the parish’s physical “rebirth,” but also a gentle reminder of the necessary renewal of our hearts through the sacraments.)
Finally, the decorations on peacock feathers have been said to look like eyes. These have been a traditional symbol for the all-seeing God and the Church who watches over the faithful.
There is much more that can be written about the symbolism of the peacock, as there is about any story that has lasted so long. I think it is safe to say that the peacock is a powerful sign because of its beauty. (After all, the blobfish and the vampire bat have not enjoyed quite the same popularity.) There is something particularly captivating about the rich blues and greens, the intricate patterns of the plumage, and the idea that perhaps this bit of extravagant decoration is an over-the-top flourish of love from a Creator who loves us deeply and wants us to have nice things.
Header peacock image by NIHAL JABIN – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31562848
Photo from St. Peter Church courtesy of St. Peter parish website, www.stpeterchurch.net
Peacock photograph in body by Peter Carson, aka Pete121 at en.wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons