A Peacock (?) Fit for a King
We've just sold a pair of chairs with a very unusual carving on their crest rails. It looks like a peacock, but we think it's a phoenix. Why? Because of its symbolism.
When these chairs were made, c. 1680, literacy was spreading steadily, and when a culture is literate, visual symbolism declines. But even as late as 1680, symbolism was still important, particularly when it had to do with the recently restored monarchy. Flashing one's royalist credentials was the socially adept thing to do. Now, the peacock has nothing to do with the monarchy, whereas the phoenix did -- or at least, might.
Any carver would have seen a peacock, but we doubt that he had seen a phoenix, not unless he happened to have been in Egypt on a specific day that occurred only once every 500 years -- so the chances are slim, to say the least.
As we are sure you know, there was only one phoenix alive at any one time. It lived in India (which in the period meant the Far East in general) and on its 500th birthday, it filled its wings with sweet smelling spices and flew to Heliopolis in Egypt. There, a priest prepared an altar topped with kindling and dry wood. The phoenix lay on the pyre and ignited the kindling by striking its beak on a stone. It fanned the fire with its wings and was quickly reduced to ashes. Next day, a small wormlike creature emerged from the ashes, and in two days it had grown into another phoenix. On the third day, the phoenix stretched its wings, saluted the priest and flew back home to India.
Obviously, the phoenix was made to symbolize the resurrection of Christ. But it could equally well symbolize the restoration of the monarchy after the Cromwellian hiatus, and thus become a badge of loyalty to the crown. In this vein, it might refer also to the hereditary nature of the monarchy: "The King is dead. Long live the King."
OK, the phoenix may be historically more appropriate than a peacock, but why does it look so much like one? Because in real life it did. According to the Bestiary of Pierre de Beauvais,
[The Phoenix] wears on its head a crest like the peacock; its breast and its throat are resplendent with red, and it gleams like fine gold; towards its tail it is blue as the clear sky."
Our carver must have breathed a sigh of relief as he headed straight for the nearest peacock to serve as his model. On the front stretcher he carved a simpler bird that doesn't look at all like a peacock, but which may still be a phoenix.
Medieval bestiaries were concerned with symbolic meanings and exotic stories: not at all with anatomical exactitude. Look at our illustrations from bestiaries. In some the phoenix had a crest, in others it didn't; sometimes it had a long tail, sometimes a short. Noone seemed to care -- it was what it stood for that mattered. So, in our opinion, this bird on this crest rail looks like a peacock but means like a phoenix.