Something to Crow About

Today is Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week, which recalls the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Passover. The Gospel of John tells us that crowds of people lined the streets, welcoming Jesus, waving palm branches, laying them down to bedeck his path into the city. In many countries it’s traditional for today’s congregation to receive small crosses made from palm leaves. Some churches will also put on a procession around the building, with songs and waving of crosses, imagining the entry into Jerusalem.

The week following Palm Sunday charts the sequence of events that led to the crucifixion. Maundy Thursday (or Holy Thursday) marks the Last Supper and the betrayal by Judas, and Good Friday (or Holy Friday) commemorates the arrest, trial, crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus. Holy Saturday is the Sabbath on which Jesus rested in the grave.

For Christians, the cockerel can be a prominent symbol at this time, since he announces loud and clear to the world that a new day will soon be dawning. So a scrabble of scrapping, squawking Farmyard Fowls (c. 1827) is what’s needed today. These birds of a feather come courtesy of John James Audubon (1785 – 1851), the renowned French-American ornithologist, naturalist, hunter and painter. Born in what is now Haiti to a French sea captain and a servant, Audubon was taken to France as a boy and raised by his father and step-mother.

From his earliest days, Audubon felt an affinity for birds and sensed they’d play a role in his life: “I felt an intimacy with them, bordering on frenzy.” He recalls how his father encouraged the interest and “would point out the elegant movement of the birds, and the beauty and softness of their plumage. He called my attention to their show of pleasure or sense of danger, their perfect forms and splendid attire. He would speak of their departure and return with the seasons.” In 1803, Audubon’s father got a false passport for his son to travel to the US; from that time on Audubon made America his most permanent home.

Among all bird-lovers, Audubon is most-known for Birds of America (completed 1838), his seminal study containing 435 hand-colored engravings of 1,065 birds of 489 species. This painting isn’t part of that project per se, but it will reveal some of the approaches Audubon used in documenting birds. Farmyard Fowls is an oil on canvas and showcases the artist’s astonishing ornithological exactness. Quite simply, he’s captured the physical essence of these animals: just take a gander at the scaly talons, quivering tail feathers and red, rubbery comb of that cockerel. And quite aside from the bodily believability, this picture is also about character and drama. The pitch-black background (unusual in nature studies) and punchy poses of the birds both add electricity. For Birds of America, Audubon took the revolutionary approach of placing specimens in the way he thought they moved in the wild. Here too, the downward, dipping diagonals of the birds spark the image into instant life. There’s a narrative too, to the point that we can actually relate to the tussle unfolding here: the fowls’ face-off (which includes a feathered frisson between a male and females) makes it clear this artist absorbed and understood the animals’ real-life behavior.

In many parts of Europe processions are held on Palm Sunday in which children carry light wooden crosses decorated with strings of dried fruit and papery streamers. Spiked onto the top sits a bread cockerel, glowing golden and crowing of the new dawn to come.