Birds have been the subject of inspiration for artists, throughout history. Artistic representation of the bird can be dated back as far as 15,000-10,000 BC, where an image of a bird-headed man can be found on one of the walls of the Lascaux Cave in France (often referred to as the treasure-house of Stone Age art).
Ancient Egyptians even considered birds as ‘winged souls’ and they were also used to represent their gods. For instance, Horus the god of the sun, was often embodied by a falcon, which can be seen in a statue of the Pharaoh Khafre who can be seen seated with the falcon of Horus perched behind his head. The bird’s wings are wrapped protectively around Khafre and it appears as though the bird is watching over the Pharaoh and his realm.
Subsequently raptors have often been seen as symbols of national power – an example that most will recognise, being a bald eagle as the national symbol for the United States of America.
Just as predatory birds are often used in art to illustrate power and prestige, the dove is a well-recognised symbol of peace and regrowth, perhaps engrained into our psychology from the religious cogitations; John 14:27 ‘Peace I leave with you […] The dove brought the olive-branch of peace’. In 1949, after the end of World War II, Pablo Picasso was invited to create an image to represent peace. For it, he designed his very first ‘Dove of Peace’ which, fun fact, he based on a naturalistic drawing of a pigeon that was given to him by Henri Matisse. This was later evolved into the simple line drawing that is a more recognisable peace symbol today, as it was chosen to represent the first International Peace Conference in Paris, 1949.
It is not always the birds themselves that are recognised as symbolic but also, quite simply, their anatomy. Winged, mythical creatures have been depicted throughout history as symbols of freedom, victory and liberty.
Symbolic winged chimeras such as the Pegasus, the Hippogriff, the Manticore and the Griffin are recurrent motifs of spiritual freedom and liberty. An idea of an untamed freedom prevalent in their mythology, embodied and defined by their winged nature. Of course, this is also a reoccurring element in art, with bird like wings as the outstanding feature, for example, in the renowned marble sculpture of Nike (the Greek goddess of Victory) named ‘The Winged Victory of Samothrace’ (200 BC). The sculpture removes the head and arms of Nike which draws all of the attention to the outspread wings that frame her torso, thus characterising her victory through the bird-like anatomy.
The transference of symbolic themes from the avian world continue unabated into our contemporary society. We see them represented not only in modern and classic art but also in our every day lives, in TV adverts and corporate company logos. For instance, an eagle is used as a symbol for supremacy and high quality for Giorgio Armani, the illustrious blue-bird that epitomises Twitter reflects an essence of freedom and endless possibilities (as well as equating tweeting to the call of chirping birds) and a family of nesting birds represent the care and prosperity of the Nestle food company.
Birds are well and truly embedded into the human psyche from years of allegorical history, which is why they are perceived as such compelling and powerful symbolism in our art.