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A Cross-Cultural Aviary

Birds abound in the arts of the ancient Americas. Soaring falcons, fish-eating sea birds, hovering hummingbirds, and brilliantly colored parrots captured the imagination of peoples from Mesoamerica to the Andes. Poised for flight or perched with regal bearing, birds take pride of place on many textiles, sculptures, and jewelry. This section of the exhibition features objects from the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine and Pre-Columbian Collections.

An abiding interest in avian forms and symbolism crosses two continents and spans centuries in the history of art. Bird-shaped ornaments, feathers, and avian iconography embellish the garments and prized possessions of the elite. Supernatural beings, often equipped with wings, beaks, or claws, reference avian powers of flight, speed, vision, speech, and predation. Bird imagery varies greatly by culture and time period, but similarities in the treatment and associations of avian forms are striking.

Birds face all directions on this mantle fragment. The tapestry border features small birds with headdresses swimming alongside or riding in fancy boats. They face left, while the rows above and below represents birds in geometric design facing to the right. The brocaded body of the cloth bears a design of diagonal rows of birds facing down.

Each brown rectangle on the body of this tassel bears a schematic bird with long open beak, facing upward. The cloth is woven in two layers—one with birds, the other with wavy lines—that alternately cross through one another. In this way, the birds literally dip under, and emerge above, the waves.

At the top of the tassel, three fantastic creatures face upward. Each has a large eye, tooth-filled jaw or beak, and a crest. A patterned wing and tail suggest that these are supernatural birds, each possibly carrying a staff or banner. The tassel was probably once attached to a long band worn wrapped around the head.

A pattern of birds in spotted diamonds covers this plaque. They pose, symmetrical and upright, as if diving upward. The row of small dots along the top edge of their tails mimics the large dots at the bottom left of the plaque, suggesting a costume or adornment. Birds bedecked in this way were probably also supernaturally empowered.

The plaque itself is part of an ornament in the shape of a shirt. The upper right corner forms part of the neck opening, while the row of large dots on the lower left marks the bottom of the sleeve. The small holes at the edges served to attach other gold plaques, and possibly a textile backing.

Four figures crouch with arms extended on the front of this shirt. At the ends of their arms are big-eyed bird-like objects with ferocious-looking beaks. The objects' bodies look like the tumi knives associated with Andean sacrificial rituals.

The shirt's two central figures have oversize headdresses decorated with many bird heads. Even the tassel-like endings of the lower headdress, collar, and legs look like stylized bird heads. Finally, the spaces around the figures are filled with little birds in different colors. The sheer abundance of bird imagery on garments, props, and background suggests that the fantastic figures, and perhaps by extension the wearer of the shirt, had a special connection to things avian.

Like many cultures, the Romans attributed significant powers of authority to the eagle. This solid-cast bronze example grips a laurel wreath in its beak, a symbol of victory in Greco-Roman antiquity, and stands with its talons splayed over the horns of a bull's head. The hollow interior of the bull's head serves to connect this finial to a pole or staff, and as such it undoubtedly served as a military ensign (insignium) on a standard. Imperial coinage of the third century employed such imagery as a symbol of divine-sanctioned might and victory. The eagle was a symbol of Jupiter, and therefore the bearer of this standard would have boasted the legion's military success, facilitated by the king of the gods.

The handle of this oil lamp comprises an elegantly rendered griffin's head—deriving from pagan mythology—while the dove and cross are symbols of Christian salvation and enlightenment through the Holy Spirit. The griffin, with its eagle's head and lion's body was associated with Apollo, the god of light, but was also widely believed to be a guardian of the divine realm. The griffin, cross, and dove combined Apolline and Christian references into a new, but short-lived cultural hybrid in the period of the transformation of the Roman Empire into a Christian Empire.

The eagle's vast wing span extends over the wolves, its prey. Both pagan and Christian associations on this panel convey the defensive nature of the creature. The eagle's protective powers are amplified with the addition of a bulla or amulet around its neck. Children in antiquity frequently wore apotropaic bulla until adulthood. When featured on the eagle in early Byzantine Egypt, the "eaglestone" amulet provided protection for pregnant women. Likely incorporated into an architectural framework, the decorative panel would have served as protection for the home.

Archangels, according to biblical sources, are celestial beings and intermediaries between God and humankind. Seraphim are the highest order of the angels responsible for protecting God's throne, and they are described as six winged creatures in the Bible. There is, however, no mention of the Archangel Gabriel with wings. The Book of Daniel relates Gabriel's visit in Daniel, 9: 21–22, "While I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the first, came to me in swift flight." The angel is a compelling example of the artistic adaptation of mythological characters into the Christian context. The winged goddess Nike (Victory), frequently represented in antiquity crowning emperors, is likely the inspiration for the form of the angel. The angel's ability to communicate is unique, though, and may derive from Mercury, the messenger god who was frequently depicted with wings attached to his feet.

Textiles featuring a jeweled cross flanked by birds are a common arrangement in Coptic Egypt. However, prior to the official declaration of Christianity, weavers were able to incorporate crosses onto garments in only the most unobtrusive way – such as a small cross on the back of the neck or shoulder band of a tunic. In the fifth and sixth centuries, the application of ecclesiastical symbols was encouraged. The cross in this fragment is central, and the four birds circling the arms may be doves or ducks. The dove, when placed within the cross, is often understood as a symbol of the Resurrection. Ducks, however, were extremely popular in Egypt. When applied to a garment, they would have assumed funerary significance.

The emblem of the double-headed eagle is one of the oldest in the world. The Byzantines likely adopted the double-headed bird from Babylonian and Hittite depictions popular in the ancient Near East. Emperor Isaac Komnenos (r.1057–1059) is generally believed to have first used the bicephalous eagle as an imperial emblem. The motif spread to the west, as illustrated by the ring shown next to it. Featured on the silk fragment, the creature is heavily adorned with jewels such as the pearled band at the neck, and the gold crescents with pendants which hang from each beak.

The crescent-shaped gold earrings are like the jewelry suspended from the beaks of the double-headed eagle on the silk textile fragment. The iconography of the peacock, however, places this far from the heraldic tradition. Drinking from the vases, the birds represent the Christian ideal of drinking from the fountain of life. The peacock also symbolized resurrection because of its ability to shed and grow new feathers. The openwork technique is typical of early Byzantine jewelry, and suggests that the earrings may have been produced in Constantinople.

The tri-lobed headdress of these birds easily identifies them as peacocks. The holes near the eyes would have been used to secure the ornaments to a fabric backing. The peacock's association with immortality came from the pagan belief that this bird's flesh did not decay. If these appliqués were affixed to a leather garment, the peacock's pagan symbolism then becomes apotropaic. The workmanship of these pieces is comparable, if not identical, to a sword fragment discovered in Kerch near the Crimea. The production of this luxury metalwork was probably for military regalia.

The bird incised on the bottom of this bowl is most likely a goose, walking towards the right. The green and yellow glazes effectively emphasize the form of the bird encircled by the rinceau pattern of the rim. With some exceptions, fowl were generally not imbued with the deep symbolism of many other birds. The goose is nonetheless appropriately situated in the context of this domestic ware. Various methods of preparation are recorded for the consumption of this fowl, and its movement humorously conveys an attempt to escape its culinary fate.

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