If you think intellectual sadomasochism is a rare condition, let me be the harbinger of grim news. You’ve played this game, likely more than once.
You kick off the ball when you ask yourself a clever, valid but inconsequential question to which you have no immediate answer but somehow require one, right there and then. Without hesitation, you turn to your friends for help and support, ultimately bringing pain and misery to everyone, but above all, to yourself.
Like when you’re watching a movie, see a familiar face on the screen but don’t remember the actresses’ name. You gently nudge your friend, “That actress – what’s her name? I know her name! I just can’t remember it now. She was in that other movie – what’s its name? – wait, it’ll come back”. No. Neither your friend nor even the first letter of her name is coming back. You spend the rest of the movie trying to remember her name or her character names or her movies names, and your friends are hissing “who cares”, “stop”, and “let’s watch the movie” each time you distract them with an “aha” that you utter when you feel you may have found the answer. You haven’t, of course. As the lights come back on and people start shambling out of the auditorium, you realise you don’t remember anything from the film you’ve just seen because your mind was busy stalking your own memory, and that’s when it all comes back to you. Her name, her movies, everything. You announce it proudly to your friends knowing at that very moment they won’t be asking you to join them for a movie night-out anytime soon.
Something like that happened to me a year ago. I saw a painting, found something unusual in it and began harassing my friends with questions about the possible meaning of that “something”.
It was this painting – the Annunciation by Antonello da Messina (1474) in Palazzo Bellomo, Syracuse.
If you think it is in pretty bad shape, you should have seen it before it was restored in 2006:
As you can see, it is a straightforward, no-nonsense Annunciation. Gabriel, Mary, Santo Spirito as a white dove… Wait. What’s the other bird doing there? What kind of bird is it? These were my questions I started WhatsApping around.
When my art-loving friends came back empty-handed, I started looking for answers myself. Finally, I settled on the idea that it was the underpainting for the dove which the artist decided to move down a few inches for a better fit to the ray emanating from God. If you continue the ray line seen outside the window, the black bird hovers way above it.
It is not unusual for restorers to leave uncovered imagery visible to illustrate compositional changes the artist had made. That hypothesis proved wrong though – both birds are present on the photographs of the Annunciation in its unrestored state. I kept tormenting myself and others for a few weeks until I realised the insanity of it all, and quit.
And now, a year later, Robert Campin – God rest his soul – a 15th-century painter from the Netherlands, brought it all back.
In symbolism, Netherlandish painters loved details, especially the ones loaded with meaning. They could get really inventive and outlandish about visual signs they used. This famous altarpiece from the workshop of Robert Campin (1425-28) is just one example.
Instead of the Holy Ghost as a dove, we have a “real” soul with a cross, loaded with the double meaning of Christ’s virginal conception and his future suffering.
So, given that Antonella da Messina was under the spell of Netherlandish artists at the time, especially Petrus Christos, a pupil of Jan van Eyck, he must have followed their lead not only in compositions and decorations but in their love for sacred and meaningful detail.
It means the black bird had a mission.
This time, I decided to decipher it on my own.
What is the symbolism of the second bird?
In fact, it is an easy question to answer. A typical Annunciation must have at least three or four components in it.
- The Holy Spirit descending on the Virgin (a white dove in 99.9% of cases)
- A symbol of Christ’s future martyrdom (anything from berries and birds to an actual cross)
- A symbol for the promise of Resurrection (many, from peacock to palm frond)
- A symbol of Mary’s chastity (usually, white lilies)
In Antonella da Messina’s picture, we have the white dove (The Holy Spirit), the palm frond in the hands of Gabriel (the promise of Resurrection) and, again very rare, a cactus (which stands for our life without the Lord in it) in a pot decorated with lilies (bingo for Virgin’s chastity).
What we don’t have is a symbol of Christ’s future martyrdom, so it must be the meaning of the black bird.
This would tie up all the loose ends in the story:
God sends both the Holy Spirit and premonition of suffering down to the Chaste Virgin, who becomes aware of her son’s future and her own destiny at the exact same moment. Gabriel is holding a palm frond, promising the victory of the spirit over the flesh. The Virgin’s mission is vital because, without it, life is a total cactus. Gabriel brings the good news, the not so good news, and reassurance that everything’s going to be OK in the end. I wonder if before Gabriel delivered his message, he started with something like, “Oh, hello, it’s good that you are seated”.
So which bird the black partner of the white dove could be?
At the time, late 15th century, goldfinch was a prevalent second bird in Annunciations, as a symbol of martyrdom. The goldfinch feeds on thistle seeds, thistle links up to thorns, and its red breast makes the bird a perfect candidate. Raphael and one of my Venetian favourites, Carlo Crivelli, were fans of the bird.
I wish the second bird was a goldfinch. Well, the bad news is that the goldfinch has a white beak. There is a goldfinch variety in the US that develops a red beak during mating season, but America had not been discovered by 1474.
So, which other birds could it be? Logically, it must be one of the birds present at Christ’s torments, the ascent to Calvary, or the Crucifixion.
Unfortunately, the New Testament doesn’t mention any birds in these parts of the plot. Luckily, the oral Christian tradition has a lot of birds in it.
God bless Ernest Ingersoll for his book, Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. He collected thousands of tales, myths, and stories – globally – about birds that the collective Christian psyche inserted into the Biblical narrative.
So, let’s go one by one.
A red crossbill tried to pry the nails from Jesus’s limbs. This is why its beak (or bill, in ornithologist speak) is crooked.
No, definitely not this one…
A European robin tended Christ’s pierced side. This is why its breast is the colour of dried blood. In another version, it plucked the sharpest thorn from the crown of thorns worn by the Saviour. Before that brave act, the bird was all grey.
No, that’s a miss.
A swallow pulled off a double act: it was trying to lure away the officers who were searching for Christ in the Garden at Gethsemane and in the Northern tradition are said to hover over the Crucifixion cheering up the last moments of the Saviour with their chirping.
Well…maybe, even though the beak is not red and the body shape is slightly off: the bird in the painting has a smaller head and a bigger body.
So, our last potential candidate is another dove.
A wood pigeon sat on the Cross and tried to alleviate Jesus’s suffering by wailing its notes of sorrow. You all know how that sounds.
Well, that seems like our dude. There’s a bit of red pigment in the beak, the shape is right, and the colour is mostly grey (and in some varieties, it is all grey).
Now the issue can be put to rest. What is bothering me a little is that all this time I’ve tormented myself and my friends because of the common pigeon.