The Cross and the Peacock

Do you ever get the feeling that you’re being watched when you are sitting in your pew?

The colorful “eye” patterns on peacock feathers are supposed to represent the “all-seeing eyes” of the church, and there’s a pair of these peeking out — like an ever-vigilant Santa’s “elf-on-a- shelf — from a half-hidden, half-moon stained-glass window perched above the left confessional at the back of the church.

The two peacock feathers in our window actually form part of a Resurrection tableau, on either side of a cross with five “jewels” in the middle, indicating the five wounds of Christ; diamond-shaped Byzantine lozenges symbolizing the Word of God made flesh; and a calla lily border signifying rebirth.

How do the peacock feathers fit in with the Resurrection theme? That’s a complicated question. Some claim that medieval Europeans long ago believed that peacock meat would never spoil, so peacocks came to represent the “incorruptibile” and, by extension, immortal. Others maintain the fact that peacocks shed their feathers and re-grow them in the Spring, suggested a phoenix-like cycle of rebirth and renewal. According to Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols, the peacock is a symbol for “the blending together of all colours and for the idea of totality. This explains why, in Christian art, it appears as a symbol of immortality and of the incorruptible soul.

Peacocks have a long mystical history in art. Tracing their story, Jelena Andelkovic writes that in ancient India and Ceylon, the peacock was considered a symbol of the sun, because of it plumy tail. In the Greek and Roman worlds, the peacock was the emblem of Dionysus, god of wine; and Juno/Hera. queen of the gods. The eyes in the peacock’s tail represented stars and invoked eternity. This may have been the roots for their association with the all-seeing church, and their use as protective talismans.

Cirlot observes that symbolic peacocks often flanked a “Cosmic Tree” — an ancient association “which came to Islam from Persia and subsequently reached Spain and the West,” and “denotes the psychic duality of man…drawing its life force from the principle of unity.” When peacocks were adopted in Byzantine Christian art (a design inspiration for our church), especially in Ravenna, Italy, Jelkovic notes that they were often shown on sarcophagi with a “Tree of Life” from the Garden of Eden, which “symbolizes the connection between heaven and earth, death and resurrection, and sometimes suggests crucifixion.” Two peacock feathers flanking the wood of a cross in our church might then be intended to signify Christ’s connection with heaven and earth — both human and divine — a theme that is already highlighted in the double-cross motifs below the long, stained glass windows on the parking lot side.

Located above the confessional, our feathers could also offer a meditation on Christ’s sacrifice and an admonition to humility for those examining their conscience before entering the box, since the peacock’s showy tail can represent vanity and pride.  The peacock’s reputation for “incorruptibility” could also be a caution to the ambitious!

In the end, whatever the peacock represents, the real “eyes of the church” are not the ones in the stained-glass feathers above the confessional: they’re ours — acknowledging each other from our pews each week; watching our parish children grow, year by year; looking out for one another; and feeling that we share a bond over time as part of a faith community!

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