Birds can appear in narrative paintings as mere staffage, decoration of the sky, or to lend a natural atmosphere, but when the artist has gone to the lengths of making the type of bird distinguishable, they may well have greater significance. In this article I consider two of the more distinctive types of bird that might require more careful reading, eagles and owls, and tomorrow I turn to peacocks and doves.
The most common association of any large bird resembling an eagle is with the god Zeus or Jupiter.
Zeus’s eagle appears in a great number of paintings of various myths involving the god. This is Correggio’s Abduction of Ganymede (1520-40), showing this mortal being stolen from his duties as a shepherd, and flown to Olympus to serve drinks to the god.
Zeus’s eagle is a strong hint that the god is in the painting, but disguised. This is common in paintings of Ovid’s Metamorphoses for myths in which Zeus uses disguise as a means to rape a mortal, as in Rubens’ subtle and thought-provoking account of Jupiter and Callisto from 1613. What appears to be the goddess Diana is actually Zeus, revealed to the viewer by his eagle parked in the background.
Eagles play a role in other myths involving Zeus. One gruesome example is Prometheus, who gave humans fire against the wishes of Zeus, who punished him by chaining him to a rock for an eagle to come and eat his liver, a set-piece painting usually titled Prometheus Bound. Early in his career, in about 1611-18, Rubens tackled this brilliantly. The offending brand still burns at the lower left corner as a cue to the Titan’s offence against Zeus.
Eagles are also associated with remote and mountainous regions. In Fantasy of the Alps. Eagles Nesting on an Alpine Peak (1822), Carl Gustav Carus has developed his own version of the Gothic mountain and fog scene, in which the sole creatures are not human, but eagles.
My last painting of an eagle is deeply symbolic, but harder to interpret, particularly when you’re expecting it to be a dragon.
Gustave Moreau’s Jason from 1865 refers to Jason of Golden Fleece and Argonauts fame, a series of swashbuckling adventures offering many opportunities for theatrical narrative painting. Moreau avoids them all, and shows us a static Jason, with Medea stood behind him, and not a Golden Fleece in sight. The ram’s head at the top of the pillar on the left signifies the Golden Fleece, and the dragon that guarded it is shown as the eagle on which Jason is standing, with the broken tip of his javelin embedded in it. In the original story the dragon was put to sleep by one of Medea’s potions, rather than being killed with a javelin.
Although there are plenty of owls to be seen in the daytime, they are strongly associated with the night.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau flies his owls in support of a personification of the mythical Night (1883), as do others painting similar motifs. These owls are invariably selected to have dark plumage; there is no role here for the white spectre of the barn owl, for instance.
The popular association of owls with wisdom and learning seems to have originated from their more ancient association with the Roman goddess Minerva, and by descent from the Greek goddess Athena (or Athene). Athena may go back to an even earlier Mycenean goddess: in archaic images, Athena is often seen with an owl perched on her hand, and there is a suggestion that she may have originally been a bird goddess.
Whatever the origins, there’s no doubt that Athena then Minerva were goddesses of wisdom, learning, crafts, and skill, and that they were strongly associated with owls. Thus owls became proxies for wisdom and knowledge.
Hendrik Goltzius shows a classical and fairly complete set of her attributes in his Minerva (as the Personification of Wisdom) from 1611: the owl, her distinctive helmet, here decorated with olive leaves, a spear, books, and great beauty.
William Blake’s Hecate, The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy (1795) is an altogether more puzzling watercolour. Hecate is the goddess of the moon, magic, and sorcery, and is sometimes shown in this triple form. She isn’t normally associated with owls, though. Blake may have made that link through night, and several who have tried to explain Blake’s symbols have invoked the owl as a symbol of the false or tainted wisdom that came with sorcery. The latter doesn’t appear to have much support in the classics, though, and may have been peculiar to Blake’s own constructed mythology of Enitharmon.
As symbols of learning and wisdom, their use is very old. In Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Portrait of Dr. Johannes Cuspinian (1502) the subject’s learning is indicated by the book he is clutching, and by the owl flying at the top right.
For other artists, though, the ever-watchful eyes of the owl became sinister.
Hieronymus Bosch’s drawing of The Wood Has Ears, The Field Has Eyes, from about 1500, features a single owl standing in the hollow of a tree trunk, looking decidedly shifty and full of malice. It’s out-numbered by other birds, which are more sketchy in appearance, but the most sinister features of this are the two ears stood in the coppice behind, and the seven human eyes laid on the grass in the foreground.
Its message is plain, and disturbing: what you say and do will be heard and seen, even when you’re out in the countryside. It could almost be used as a poster for a modern campaign against electronic surveillance. No one knows why Bosch drew this, but it looks like the work of someone who is worried that their words and actions are being observed by others.