Birds in a Gilded Cage

Birds in a Gilded Cage

With a new exhibition of works of applied art from its storerooms, the State Hermitage Museum unveils previously unseen treasures. In the new exhibition, birds are depicted as messengers from the gods and as emblems of power, wealth and love.

Published: April 24, 2013 (Issue # 1756)


A 17th-century German ivory figurine of Jupiter atop an eagle.

A flock of ancient birds has taken up residence in one of the stately bedrooms of the Winter Palace at the State Hermitage Museum in the form of a new exhibition, which opened last week and runs until the end of September.

Aptly titled “Birds — Messengers of the Gods. Western European Applied Art of the 16th to 19th Centuries,” the exhibition focuses on rare works of decorative art, ranging from clocks, table decorations, upholstery and wall coverings to intricate jewelry and other personal possessions of the rich and famous.

Showcasing over 100 pieces from the museum collection, many of which have never been displayed before, the exhibition aims to give visitors a unique insight into the way birds have been depicted and valued throughout the 16th-19th centuries in Western Europe. Such representations depict birds as messengers from the ancient gods and as emblems of power, wealth and love.

“Some of the exhibits on show are interesting for their unusual history or because of their previous ownership by royalty,” said Tatiana Kosourova, the exhibition curator. “However, we are most excited about the fact that many of these pieces are leaving the storerooms for audiences to see for the very first time.”

“Over the centuries, birds have played different roles. At various times they have represented the chief attributes of the gods, appeared as their heralds or even as incarnations of the gods themselves. They have also been used in ornamental motifs with symbolic meaning, chosen by artists for their beauty,” adds Kosourova.

Kosouriva explains that each ancient god had his or her own bird which symbolized the key features of his or her character. For example, Jupiter, a god known for his strength and power, took the shape of an eagle; Juno, the god of grandeur and royalty, appeared as a peacock; Minerva, god of wisdom, took the form of an owl; while Mars, the god known for his belligerence, was represented as a rooster. For the elegant gods of beauty and love, Venus and Apollo, more delicate birds were used, such as the swan and pigeon.

In addition, certain birds were more prominent than others for their symbolic weight in different centuries, directly reflecting the political events and the public mood of the age. For example, the 17th and 19th centuries were known as times of power, authority and victory and as a result, the image of the eagle was widely used in decorative art. In contrast, the 18th century was a time when the theme of love was more widely valued, and hence images of the swan and pigeon were more prevalent during this period.

Other works of decorative art that visitors can enjoy at the exhibition include: porcelain from Meissen and Sevres; enamels from Limoges; silver from Nuremberg and Augsburg; tapestries from the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris and lace from Alencon and Argentan.

‘Birds — Messengers of the Gods. Western European Applied Art of the 16th to 19th Centuries’ runs through Sept. 29 in the Blue Bedroom at the State Hermitage Museum.

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