The Green Parrot

van Eyck Kanonikus van der Paele Madonna, Christuskind, PapageiWhen Jane Dudley, Duchess of Northumberland thanked her recently acquired friend, the Duchess of Alba, in her will, she wrote: “I give to the duchess of Alva my green parrot; I have nothing worthy for her else”.

A green parrot: how exotic a bird was this in the England of 1555? Did it originate from the New World? Possibly, but it is much more likely that any green parrot in the possession of Jane Dudley would have been one of the luxury pets known in Europe since antiquity. Parrots were first imported by the armies of Alexander the Great, who brought them from India.

Green parrots were well-known in medieval Europe, as depictions in art of the 15th century show; they usually carried a symbolical meaning. The parrot, of course, was a “speaking animal”, and was not so much seen as “parroting” human words than pointing to the Word of God and the Bible. Additionally, parrots were seen as symbols of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which explains why a picture like Jan van Eyck’s Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele (1434-36) (detail above) features a green parrot in a central position.

Martin Schongauer’s engraving Virgin and Child with a Parrot (c.1480-83) combines the two symbolic meanings by having Mary turning the pages of the book, the Bible, while her son Jesus is holding a parrot, who in turn is looking at the Bible.

Schongauer Madonna mit dem PapageiThe religious climate of 1555 was very different from that of the 15th century and Jane Dudley was almost certainly of evangelical outlook herself and it can only be guessed whether she would have been aware of any traditional meanings associated with parrots. These birds were not common and certainly carried an air of the exotic about them, which made them a suitable present (or bequest) as they were. Yet in practice old traditions die hard, and both duchesses may still have had some understanding of the old beliefs. Jane Dudley was a shrewd lady, a mother who, knowing that it would please the queen, did not hesitate to ask the government to allow her sons to hear mass while in captivity. Perhaps she hoped an allusion to the Virgin Mary would please a Spanish Catholic who had helped to get her sons out of prison.

Sources
Adams, Simon (2002): Leicester and the Court: Essays in Elizabethan Politics. Manchester University Press.

Adams, Simon (2008): ‟Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.

Borchert, Till-Holger (2010): Van Eyck bis Dürer: Altniederländische Meister und die Malerei in Mitteleuropa. Belser.

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5 thoughts on “The Green Parrot

  1. Great article, as usual. Was Jane Dudley so young that she wasn’t educated until after the Reformation? Or, was she of an age where she would have been raised Catholic (increasing the likelihood that she understood the symbolism of the green parrot) and became evangelical in outlook at a later date?

    • Thank you, Esther! Jane was born in 1508 or early 1509. She would have grown up in the old faith of course. The Dudleys moved in evangelical circles from before 1535. Jane’s will doesn’t contain any confession of religion, apart from remarks about the vanity of the world, and since it was written in January 1555, the month when the heresy laws were revived, that probably means she was holding on to the reformed faith.

  2. Do you know why parrots were seen as symbols of the Immaculate Conception of Mary? I guess I cannot get my head round the fact that parrots were exotic birds. :)

    • The concept of the Immaculate Conception became very fashionable in the 15th century and there was a lot of intellectual controversy about it at the time. Also, the late Middle Ages were obsessed with religious symbolism, especially concerning the Virgin Mary. I’ve just read that it was believed that parrots naturally said “Ave”, thus praying the Hail Mary by default … But you are right, of course, the true reason why to depict parrots in paintings would probably have been that they were exotic birds and thus a sign of the owners’ affluence. :)

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