Peacocks in Sacred Art

Q. Why does the peacock appear in some works of Catholic sacred art?


A. The peacock held symbolic value in Christian art because of its associations in ancient pre-Christian cultures that were adopted by Christian artists and writers. For various peoples, the peacock was viewed as a guardian of royalty or a bird associated with paradise and the Tree of Life. The Greeks believed that the flesh of the peacock did not decay after death (a theory that St. Augustine once tested).

This grand bird thus became in Christian art a symbol of royalty (sometimes depicted alongside the Blessed Virgin Mary) and of immortality, especially Christ’s victory over death as portrayed in Easter imagery. It was often shown drinking from a vase to symbolize drinking from the waters of life. The “eyes” in the peacock’s tail feathers might also be chosen to represent the all-seeing eye of God or the celestial bodies in the vault of heaven. For all these reasons the peacock was often found depicted on Christian tombs and in churches.