Birds are used as Christian symbols. In a previous “Did You Know?” we mentioned the use of the pelican in Christian art. In general, birds have long symbolized the soul’s ascent to God above material things. Some birds are used as examples of specific virtues or attributes of the Christian soul (or their opposite: the vices), while others represent Our Lord (i.e., the pelican), Our Lady, and the saints.
There is a legend that the robin received his red breast as a reward for protecting the Christ Child from the sparks of a fire, which he caught on his breast, while the Holy Family rested on their flight into Egypt.
The peacock is used to symbolize immortality – this from an ancient legendary belief that the flesh of the peacock did not decay. The Roman Catacomb of San Callisto contains a vault, in which Mass could be celebrated, with representations of the peacock decorating it. The thought of spiritual immortality would have been a great consolation to Catholics during the early persecution.
The blackbird represents the darkness of sin (black feathers) and the temptations of the flesh (its beautiful song). Once, while Saint Benedict was praying, the devil tried to distract him, appearing as a blackbird. St. Benedict, however, was not fooled, and sent him on his way with the Sign of the Cross.
The dove is well known as the symbol of the Holy Ghost, as well as representing peace and purity. It is also used in connection with St. Benedict, St. Scholastica, and St. Gregory the Great.
The eagle, like the phoenix (which also stands for faith and constancy), is a symbol of the Resurrection based on an ancient belief that the eagle would renew its youth and plumage by flying near the sun and then plunging into water. (See Psalm 102: 5.) Since St. John the Evangelist begins his Gospel by soaring to the Divinity of Our Lord, the eagle, which flies higher than other birds, also represents him. (See Ezech. 1: 5-10; Apoc. 4:7)
The falcon has two different uses in art. The wild falcon symbolizes evil thoughts or actions, while the domestic falcon represents the gentile converted to Catholicism. In this last sense, it is often shown in pictures of the Three Magi.
The goldfinch frequently appears in pictures of the Christ Child. Because of this small bird’s fondness for thistles and thorns, it has come to represent the Passion of Our Lord. When depicted with Our Lord as a child, the goldfinch associates the Incarnation with the Passion.
Saint Peter is easily spotted when portrayed with a cock; but, especially in Maronite art, the rooster is the symbol of the soul’s awakening and response to God’s grace.
The goose represents providence and vigilance. It is sometimes used in images of St. Martin of Tours, because one of them showed the people of Tours where he was hiding when they wanted to make him bishop.
The lark is a symbol of the humility of the priesthood, because this bird flies high and sings only when in flight towards Heaven.
The owl, in one sense represents Satan, the Prince of Darkness; and in another sense, it is an attribute of Our Lord, Who came to “give light to them that sit in darkness…” (Luke 1: 79).
The partridge likewise has two meanings. One is for the Church and truth; but it more commonly represents deceit, theft, and the devil.
The raven, because of his dark plumage, coarse cry, and supposed tastes, sometimes represents the devil; but God seems to have a fondness for them. One was sent to guard the body of St. Vincent Ferrer; and ravens are known to have fed at least three different saints (St. Benedict, St. Anthony the Abbot, and St. Paul the Hermit) while they were in the desert. Because of this, the raven also represents solitude.
The sparrow, considered the lowliest of birds, represents the least among people.
The swallow represents the Incarnation.
The stork is a symbol of prudence, vigilance, piety, and chastity. It is also associated with the Incarnation; for, as the stork announces the coming of spring, the Annunciation told of the coming of Our Lord.
The woodpecker usually symbolizes the Devil, or heresy, which undermines the Faith and leads man to destruction.