Peacocks, Fetters, and other Signs and Symbols
Updated: Aug 28, 2022
A painting with a peacock, a wheel, a dead tree, and a woman holding pincers – what does it mean? If we could time travel back five hundred years, we would understand. Interpreting these messages brings a painting to life and helps us understand what these signs meant to the painter and viewers. Let’s linger over one painting and look at it closely, then de-code the symbols of the painting. In the process we will begin to understand how someone in the sixteenth century might interpret this painting, and discover your takeaways.
What symbolic elements do you see in this painting? There are about twelve. Take some time with this painting to describe what you see. Enlarge it and look around. What colors, objects, or people do you see? What tone or emotion do you sense? Look for art elements such as color, line, light, etc. A good place to start with any art is by closely observing art, without immediately deciding on a meaning.
Most casual viewers passing by in a museum would recognize the Madonna, Child, and angels. What else is going on here with the figures and landscape? It is a colorful scene set outdoors with a fortress built into a rocky landscape. The setting is pastoral with lush green vegetation, a few puffy clouds in the sky, and bright indirect light. There is a vibrant green tree and a dead tree. A peacock is perched high up in the tree. On either side of the painting are some buildings in a rocky terrain. There isn’t any action or interaction in the painting, save for the three angels. The figures do not move, and neither do the trees or bird. The scene is static.
The painter, Girolamo dai Libri, left numerous hints in a familiar visual language to assist sixteenth century viewers with their interpretation. Most of this language has been lost on us today. We can reclaim this lost visual language with some study and a little help. Artists did not casually insert figures or objects into their artwork. There is very little in this painting that is accidental.
The Four Figures
First, I’ll describe the four standing figures and explain their clues; then the other signs and symbols.
All the figures have halos, a sign of their divine nature. From left to right are a woman holding a book and palm branch, a man in yellow with a metal object, and on the other side of the Madonna is a taller man with a pointed hat and red book, and a woman holding some kind of tong-like instrument. Three angels are in the foreground. Their garments are brightly colored and each figure has different clothing. Because there are so very many saints in the Catholic world, they often hold an object indicating who they are. Often, that clue can be how they died during their martyrdom, their claim to sainthood, or to indicate their patronage.
Two women both hold a palm branch, traditionally a symbol of martyrdom. There are two tell-tale signs in the woman on the left that tell us which saint this is: the book and a hint of a wooden wheel behind her. Catherine of Alexandria is the patron saint of education and was a learned fourth century Christian martyred by Roman Emperor Maxentius. Like many saints she prevailed against many death attempts, in her case being bound to four wheels in torture, but saved by a thunderbolt that destroyed the wheels. She is almost always shown with a wooden wheel. The Italian faithful of Girolamo’s time would be sad to learn she was removed from sainthood in 1969, as there wasn't enough historical information to substantiate her story.
The man in yellow isn’t a martyr. His brightly colored clothes tell us he is clergy but without the metal object, it would be difficult to discern who he is. He holds fetters which are a type of shackle, bond, or chain used with prisoners to immobilize them. The fetters symbolize his role as the patron saint of prisoners. Here, the iron fetters are broken, symbolizing freedom for those held in bondage. This man is Saint Leonard and he often advocated on behalf of political or war prisoners. Saint Leonard wears a brilliant yellow dalmatic, a tunic worn by church deacons. Saints John the Baptist and Jerome are depicted on the fabric.
While three of the saints cast their eyes downward, one looks out directly at us. He wears a cope with seven other saints depicted on it. A cope is a liturgical vestment worn during processions. The pointed headdress is called a mitre, and he holds a crozier, a symbolic shepherd’s hook, to lead the faithful. The jewels in his mitre, the ring on his finger, and jeweled clasp holding the cope signify his importance as a bishop. His jewels alone elevate him above the other saints in importance and riches. His direct gaze implies authority and hierarchy.
The book and fancy vestments point to his identity as St. Augustine (354-430). He was an early Christian theologian and philosopher who exerted great influence on developing ideas of the trinity, sin, grace, and self-determination. He was a prolific writer who engaged with contemporary Latin and ancient philosophy while developing a foundation for new Christian ways of thinking and teaching. Considered a founding father of the church, he is still a respected saint today. The red book he holds indicates education and intellectual achievement. The Augustinian order for friars was founded in 1244 and is still active today. They are not monks or hermits, but friars, ministering to those in need, wherever that might be.
The woman on the right in a beautiful red garment looks down to her left. We know the palm branch marks her as a martyr. The tongs identify her as St. Apollonia. She was another early Christian figure, and the pincers identifies her as the patron saint of dentists. She had her teeth pulled as torture prior to burning at the stake. Her pincers often hold a tooth, although Girolamo omitted that detail here. The artist has presented these martyrs with great decorum, more in a state of heavenly afterlife. Other artists (or patrons) preferred depicting them in the midst of their ordeals.
Madonna, Child, and Angels
Mary holds a naked baby Jesus. They are on a throne, elevated above others. He holds a red flower. The throne has red fabric with gold details. Mary’s clothing is blue and pink, with gold and green trim.
Jesus is naked because of his heavenly nature and a mystical legend that he was born in a burst of divine light. His nakedness also makes him human (although babies always seem to be painted as miniature adults). The red carnation or rose alludes to his passion and crucifixion.
Blue is a color that is traditionally reserved for Mary and signals her special status. Blue using the pigment lapis lazuli was also the most expensive color to utilize in painting. Colors have had many different meanings throughout the ages as well as functioning as a cohesive element in compositions. Unlike other colors, blue was immune to any negative connotations in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Compositionally, the placement of the figures is also significant. The Madonna and Child and St. Augustine are the highest which gives them greater importance. Girolamo created a typical Renaissance triangular composition, with a tight knit grouping close to the foreground, well balanced between the figures and background elements.
The angels directly below the Madonna are smaller in scale than the other figures. This hierarchical scale is used to make it crystal clear who is the most significant figure or figures in art. Diminutive figures are subservient to the main figures, which are visually more dominant. The small guitar may reference harmony and love, as may the angel singing. They are in three, an important number in Christian theology, referring to the Trinity. Angels are messengers of God and frequently accompany images of the Mary and Jesus.
The peacock. This is an unusual placement for the bird, high above the scene and on the dead tree. Ancients believed the flesh of the bird never decayed. The prominence given to the bird refers to immortality and everlasting life, certainly not what peacocks represent to us nowadays. The peacock is sometimes found in nativity scenes, and as in this painting, it foreshadows Jesus’ death and resurrection. The bird is sometimes found in representations of the Last Supper.
The laurel tree and dead tree. The vibrant and healthy green tree next to the dead tree also symbolizes life, death, and resurrection. The laurel tree has a variety of meanings, depending on the sacred or profane subject matter. Long associated with a sign of victory from the Roman Empire, and associated with the god Apollo, the laurel also figures prominently in the myth of Apollo and Daphne, as the tree became a romantic symbol of his love for Daphne. Here it may symbolize the victory of Christ. The contrast between life and death would not be lost on viewers.
About the Artist
Girolamo dai Libri (1474-1555) was active in Verona, an important city west of Venice, which lies at a juncture between north and central Italy and the foothills of the Alps to Austria and Germany. Girolamo is a relatively minor artist. Little has been written or researched about him. He was known for painting with luminous colors and crisp lighting. Girolamo’s last name, “libri,” means books in Italian, so literally he is Jerome of the Books.
He melded Venetian painting trends along with Northern European painting. Venetians were known for their use of color and, oddly enough, landscape. Northern Europeans painted meticulous details in oil paints. He was mainly known for illuminated manuscripts which lends itself to detailed miniature figures and lettering. Contemporaries remarked on the lifelike laurel tree and landscape, so authentic that birds flew to the tree trying to perch on it, thinking it was real.
This altarpiece was his masterpiece for the church of San Leonardo (Saint Leonard), an Augustinian church in San Leonardo nel Monte, near Verona. The rocky landscape with fortress may refer to the name of the town, Saint Leonard in the Mountain. The landscape reflects Verona’s position between the plains and the Dolomite mountains, accurately depicted in the background.
His composition artfully emphasizes certain symbols. The large expanse of the laurel tree next to the dead tree takes up the upper half of the painting, while the figures take up the lower half. The lush green background contrasts with the figures’ colors, bringing emphasis to their individual clothing and attributes.
What does it all mean?
The four saints are all early Christian figures representing the foundation of the church. They are not identified exclusively with this region, nor with the plague. Saints Leonard and Apollonia are not very common in art. The reason the two males are included is straightforward. Saint Leonard refers to his role as patron of the church and namesake of the town. The inclusion of St. Augustine honors this church’s founding and administration by the Order of the Augustinians.
It is unclear how the female saints relate to their inclusion, however, most likely there was some connection to the person or family who commissioned the painting. Perhaps one was their patron saint, or reflected their profession. Documents refer to a Cartieri or a Cartolari family who commissioned the painting, but we don’t know much more. Because this painting is no longer in situ (in its original place) we don’t know how it related to other art in the church.
Looking at the painting from a hierarchical scale, the highest symbol is the peacock. The trees are the largest in volume. The highest placed figures are the Madonna and Child. These convey a message to the faithful about Jesus’ suffering, resurrection, and everlasting life.
From a modern viewpoint, I find the gender representations vexing. However, one would only expect in the sixteenth century that women would be represented very differently from men. The two women are martyrs while the two men hold a place of authority in the church. The women display the ways they were tortured for their faith, while the men became saints due to good deeds or philosophical contributions. The two women look to be mirror images of each other, demure and meek. The women are modestly dressed while the men have more elaborate processional garments. St. Augustine’s glance at the viewer is stern and authoritative.
Girolamo created a painting with a specific tone and feeling. There is no drama or action. There is grace, nature, poise, calm, and contemplation. I can imagine the Augustinians attending mass and looking up at the thirteen-foot altarpiece behind the priest, praying. The painting induces a prayerful state of mind. In essence, it is a devotional piece. The scene is so evenly balanced, and frankly is a pleasure to behold with bold colors. The peace and meditative aspects speak to me as its ultimate meaning. What is your sense of the painting?
Giorgi, Rosa, and Stefano Zuffi. Saints in Art. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003.
Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. Harper & Row, 1979.
Nichols, Tom. Renaissance Art in Venice: From Tradition to Individualism. Laurence King, 2016.
Vinco, Mattia. Catalogue Entry for Madonna and Child with Saints. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2017.