I spent my tween and teen years living in Spring Valley, California. Spring Valley is a suburb of San Diego to the east. Where there just happens to be peacocks roaming freely and nestled among homes and roadways in the hills above Casa de Oro. I love the peacocks! When I go home to visit, I always try to find them. The sound of the peacocks is music to my ears.
Peacocks are actually peafowls. Male peafowls are referred to as peacocks, and female peafowl are referred to as peahens, even though peafowl of either sex are often referred to colloquially as “peacocks”. (1)
Many early Christian paintings and mosaics show the peacock. The peacock is still used in the Easter [and Christmas] season, especially in the east. (2) The ‘eyes’ in the peacock’s tail feathers symbolize the all-seeing Christian God and – in some interpretations – the [Holy Mother] Church. A peacock drinking from a vase is used as a symbol of a Christian believer drinking from the waters of eternal life. The peacock can also symbolize the cosmos if one interprets its tail with its many ‘eyes’ as the vault of heaven dotted by the sun, moon, and stars. The peacock is associated with Paradise and the Tree of Life, and with immortality. In Christian iconography, the peacock is often depicted next to the Tree of Life. (9)
You will find the peacock in many mosaics and images in baptisteries of ancient Catholic Churches in the East and West.
The peacock has long been a symbol of nobility. Kings often had peacocks on their estates. You will find peacocks in the interiors of royal palaces and as a design on royal gowns. The peacock is also a symbol of the Vatican. There have also been references to peacocks as guardians of the Gates of Paradise.
The bronze pinecone and peacock statues in a courtyard at the Vatican Museum . . . are located in what is known as the Belvedere Courtyard, which was designed by Donato Bramante beginning in 1506 for Pope Julius II to connect the Vatican Palace with the Sistine Chapel. Originally the courtyard had three levels linked by stairways and flanked by galleries that were slightly angled towards the Sistine Chapel.
This Cortille della Pigna, or Court of the Pinecone, is home to the infamous 13-foot-tall bronze pinecone statue, which coincidentally was originally part of a Roman fountain near the Pantheon. The statue was moved to the courtyard of the old St. Peter’s Basilica in the Middle Ages and then again in 1608 to where it stands today. (6)
Among Ashkenazi Jews, the golden peacock is a symbol for joy and creativity, with quills from the bird’s feathers being a metaphor for a writer’s inspiration. (3)
Peacocks have captured the imagination of humanity for thousands of years. Even King Solomon was known to possess peacocks as a symbol of his great wealth. (4)
At the time of King Solomon, his fleet of Tarsis ships carried cargoes of “gold and silver, ivory, and monkeys and peacocks” on their three-year journeys. (1 Kings 10:22) Although some of Solomon’s ships traveled to Ofir (possibly, in the Red Sea area; 1 Kings 9:26-28), in 2 Chronicles 9:21 the transportation of the mentioned cargo is related – including the peacocks – with the ships that “went to Tarsis” (probably in Spain). (8)
There was an ancient belief that the peacock’s skin was incorruptible and resisted decay even after death. Saint Augustine tested this theory and was surprised at how long it did last, revealing in City of God, “a year later, it was still the same, except that it was a little more shriveled, and drier.
This strange phenomenon led many cultures in the ancient world to see the peacock as a sign of immortality and for the Christian, a reminder of heaven. The peacock’s feathers, which would molt annually, further solidified the connection and added the spiritual symbol of the resurrection when the peacock would grow new feathers.
Additionally, the eye-shape pattern on the peacock’s feathers reminded Christians of the all-seeing eye of God. The peacock is an ancient symbol of immortality. The tail of the peacock, with its ‘thousand eyes’ are symbolic of omnipotence and often ascribed to the Archangel Michael. The peacock’s feather is sometimes associated with St. Barbara. (4, 5, & 12)
For these reasons peacocks were found frequently in Christian catacombs and churches and featured prominently on tombs, being a perfect symbol of eternal life and the immortality of the soul. (4 & 5)
This stone marble panel [above] likely came from a European church, monastery, or convent in the 6th or 7th century. Other similar carvings from the same era show these symbols were used as funerary images on sarcophagi, the joined peacocks and cross offering a reminder of the eternal afterlife. The cross and peacocks are surrounded by vines and leaves. One further interpretation is the two together are symbols for the sacred body and blood of Christ. The museum offers a text suggesting the possibility that the vines, the source of wine, and the peacock, the incorruptible flesh, would together be a symbol for Christ. (7)
Other connections to the peacock within Christianity: The correlation between the old law/new law typology is directly associated with the symbolism of the peacock. Noticing the bird’s molting feathers and subsequent re-growth, Christians drew an immediate parallel to Christ’s role as a fulfillment of the old law—all things old pass away only to be reborn into a greater glory. Just as the peacock discards its old feathers, the Law of Moses is discarded. Furthermore, just as the peacock grows more beautiful feathers, so emerges the Law of Christ. (10)
The awe-inspiring stained-glass window by Guido Nincheri below is found in Quebec, Canada in The Church of Saint-Léon-de-Westmount. In this full image of the window, you see God and His angels above Adam and Eve and the animals in the Garden of Eden. This is such a gorgeous stained-glass window! And I LOVE it has animals found in Paradise including the peacock (guardians of the Gates of Paradise).
If you’d like to learn about other symbols in Christian art and their meanings, please see my blog post Symbols in Christian Religious Art.
- Britannica Online Encyclopedia and Wikipedia, peacock | Facts & Habitat | Britannica & Peafowl – Wikipedia
- “Birds, symbolic”. Peter and Linda Murray, Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art (2004).
- “The Golden Peacock”. Jewish Folk Songs.
- What does the peacock symbolize in Christian art? (aleteia.org)
- Peacock as an Ancient Christian Symbol of Eternal Life — Early Christian Symbols of the Ancient Church (jesuswalk.com)
- The Vatican: the Pope, Peacocks and a Pinecone – Boarding Pass (boardingpasstraveler.com)
- Peacocks, Vines and a Cross – Ancient and New Symbols for the Early Church (heimsath.com)
- 🥇 What Is The Meaning Of Peacock In Bible【 2021 】Symbolism (redargentina.com)
- Christian Symbolism (slife.org)
- Ernest Ingersoll, Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore (Toronto: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1923), pg. 145.
- Photo from Gelato Quest: Photos and ramblings from Italy, unless I get on the wrong train, in which case all bets are off. Gelato Quest: “The Devil Is A Zombie!” Says Vatican
- Symbols in Christian Art (symboldictionary.net)
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