Reading visual art: 28 Peacock and dove

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Love's Messenger (detail) (1885), watercolor, tempera and gold paint on paper mounted on wood, 81.3 × 66 cm, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE. Wikimedia Commons.

In yesterday’s article I showed examples of eagles and owls with specific readings. Today it’s the turn of peacocks and doves.


The bird of Zeus or Jupiter is the eagle; that of his consort Hera or Juno is the peacock.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Judgement of Paris (1632-35), oil on oak, 144.8 x 193.7 cm, National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Paul Rubens’ late version of The Judgement of Paris from 1632-35 shows the three competing deities; from the left are Athena with her shield, Aphrodite, and Hera with her peacock. Paris is just about to give Aphrodite the golden apple of discord, as Hermes leans on the tree behind.

Hera appears most frequently in myth when she is trying to subvert Zeus’s frequent adulterous rapes and seductions. One of the most elaborate of these involves Io, whom Zeus turns into a cow in an attempt to hide her from Hera, who in turn gains control over Io, and puts Argus to watch over her. Zeus then sends Hermes/Mercury to kill Argus and release Io to him.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Juno and Argus (c 1611), oil on canvas, 249 × 296 cm, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Cologne, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens painted several versions of Hermes about to kill Argus, but this painting of Juno and Argus (c 1611) shows the conclusion of this part of the story. Hera, wearing the red dress and coronet, is receiving the eyes removed from Argus’ head to place them on the tail feathers of her peacocks. The headless corpse of Argus lies contorted in the foreground. Rubens also introduces a visual joke, in which Hera’s left hand appears to be cupped under the breasts of the woman behind.

Myths about Hera and her peacocks became further embroidered by fable.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), The Peacock Complaining to Juno (1881), watercolour on paper, 31 × 21 cm, Musée National Gustave-Moreau, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Gustave Moreau’s Peacock Complaining to Juno of 1881 shows one of Aesop’s fables in which Hera’s favourite peacock complained to the goddess that it didn’t have the voice of a nightingale. Hera responded by saying that fate had assigned each bird its properties, and the peacock should be content with its lot. This exquisite watercolour adds the ominous form of Zeus’s eagle keeping a watchful eye on his wife from a nearby cloud.

Despite their gender, peacocks thus became associated with feminine beauty, and whiling away the time beautifully.

Waterhouse, John William, 1849-1917; Dolce far niente
John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Dolce Far Niente (1880), oil on canvas, 97 × 50 cm, Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery, Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland. The Athenaeum.

John William Waterhouse’s painting of Dolce Far Niente from 1880 is set in classical Roman times. Its lone woman reclines amid pigeons and picked flowers, on a crumpled sheet and a leopard skin, clutching her fan made from peacock feathers.

John William Godward (1861-1922), Playtime (1891), oil on canvas, 50.8 × 41 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The Playtime (1891) referred to in John William Godward’s painting is that of a kitten with a peacock feather. One of the few details shown on the building is the painted image of a peacock at the upper left.


Pigeons are probably the most common birds around human habitation, and were domesticated about ten thousand years ago. Although they occur in many paintings, where they are most likely to be symbolic they’re often depicted in white and referred to as doves. Their most consistent appearance is in Christian religious paintings as a physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

Piero di Cosimo (1462–1522), Incarnation of Jesus (1485-1505), tempera on panel, 206 x 172 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Between 1485-1505, Piero di Cosimo was commissioned to paint Incarnation of Jesus, also known as Immaculate Conception with Saints, for the Tebaldi Chapel in the Church of the Annunziata of Florence. The white dove of the Holy Spirit hovers above the head of the Virgin Mary. On the left are Saints John the Evangelist, Philip Benizi and Catherine (kneeling). On the right are Saints Margaret (kneeling), Antoninus and Peter. In the background are vignette scenes of the Adoration of the Magi, the Annunciation to the Shepherds, and the Flight to Egypt.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848–9), oil on canvas, 83.2 x 65.4 cm, The Tate Gallery (Bequeathed by Lady Jekyll 1937), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848–9) shows the young Mary embroidering with her mother, Saint Anne, while her father, Saint Joachim, prunes a vine. Behind the women, perched on a cane, is the white dove of the Holy Spirit, complete with its own golden halo.

In classical myth, white doves were associated with Aphrodite or Venus, where they tow the goddess’s chariot.

Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), The Deification of Aeneas (c 1642-44), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts / Musée des Beaux-arts de Montréal, Montreal, Canada. Image by Thomas1313, via Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Le Brun painted The Deification of Aeneas in about 1642-44. This is a faithful depiction of Ovid’s account in his Metamorphoses, with the river god Numicus sat in the front, and Venus anointing Aeneas with ambrosia and nectar to make him immortal as the god Jupiter Indiges. At the right is Venus’ mischievous son Cupid, trying on Aeneas’s armour, and the chariot towed by white doves is ready to take the hero up to join the gods.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Love’s Messenger (1885), watercolour, tempera and gold paint on paper mounted on wood, 81.3 × 66 cm, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE. Wikimedia Commons.

This association with love appears in Marie Spartali Stillman’s watercolour Love’s Messenger from 1885. The woman stands by her embroidery at an outside window. On her right hand is a white messenger dove with a letter attached. She clutches that letter to her breast with her left hand, implying that its contents relate to matters of the heart. The dove is being fed corn, which could either be its reward for having reached its destination, or preparation for its departure.

Briton Rivière (1840-1920), Aphrodite (1902), oil on canvas, 185.4 × 157.4 cm, Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Briton Rivière’s Aphrodite from 1902 is perhaps the only painting of the goddess of erotic love showing her fully clothed, and not in the slightest erotic. Instead, she reaches up towards one of her white doves as she leads a group of pairs of animals, almost like Noah.