Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art, by John Vinycomb, , at sacred-texts.com
"Rara avis in terris."
An imaginary bird, described by ancient writers as in form like an eagle, but more beautiful in its plumage. Among the ancient classical writers it was an emblem of those existing in paradise, enjoying eternal youth and never-ending pleasure. Tacitus describes the phœnix as a singular bird, consecrated to the sun, and distinguished by its rich appearance and variegated colours. Herodotus naïvely says: "I
never saw one, indeed, but in a picture, but if he is like his picture his plumage is partly golden and partly red." Philippe de Thaun says: "The phœnix lives five hundred years and a little more, when it will become young again and leave its old age." It was said to be sometimes seen in Egypt, and only one was believed to exist at a time. When it is advanced in age and its time of change is at hand, it hides itself away somewhere in Arabia, and makes itself a nest of the rarest spices, which, by the heat of the sun or other secret agency, and the fanning of the sacred bird's own wings, soon rises into flames and consumes it. Out of its ashes rises another with new life and vigour to pursue the same never-ending life and re-birth.
Fum or Fung (the phœnix) is one of the four symbolical animals supposed to preside over the destinies of the Chinese Empire; the sacred Ho-ho or phœnix also figures with the dragon largely in Japanese mythology, and bears a striking analogy to the bird of classic fame. It is fabled to have a miraculous existence, and is sent on earth for the performance of extraordinary works in the manifestation of the Divinity and in the development of humanity and nature. It appears at different stages of the world's progress and in successive ages; after the accomplishment of which it reascends to heaven to come down again at the commencement of a new era.
From the pagans the Early Christians adopted the
symbol, and with them its significance had reference to the resurrection and immortality. Like the pelican "in her piety," it was peculiarly an emblem of our Saviour in His resurrection. As the phœnix when old and wearied seeks the rays of the sun to consume its body, again to be revived in life and vigour, so the Christian, worn and exhausted by worldly labour and suffering, turns to the Son of Righteousness for regeneration and newness of life. Tertullian makes the phœnix an image of the resurrection.
In corroboration of this it must be borne in mind that Jesus Christ, who died A.D. 34, is termed the phœnix by monastic writers.
The Phœnix period or cycle is said to consist of 300 years. "The bird of wonder" is said to have appeared in Egypt five times:
2. In the reign of Amasis, B.C. 566.
3. In the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus, B.C. 266.
4. In the reign of Tiberius, 34 A.D.
5. In the reign of Constantine, 334 A.D.
Tacitus in the "Annales," vi. 28, mentions the first three of these appearances.
The Phœnix-tree is the palm. In Greek φοίνιξ (phoinix) means both phœnix and palm-tree. It is thus alluded to in Shakespeare:
Pliny * gives minute particulars concerning the natural history of this rara avis in terris. But the ancient fable is most fully given by Ovid and translated by Dryden. Ariosto, also, and many early writers refer to the wonderful creature with fullest faith in its reality. It is no wonder then, that it became a favourite emblem in an age when it was the fashion among persons of distinction to have an impress or device with its accompanying legend or motto. Many persons of historical importance employed the phœnix to express in metaphor the idea they wished to convey regarding themselves. Thus we find the phœnix in flames painted for the device of Jeanne d’Arc, in the Gallery of the Palais Royal, with the motto: "Invito funere vivat" ("Her death itself will make her live").
Vittoria Colonna (+ 1547) the beautiful and accomplished wife of the Marquis of Pescara, used the device of a phœnix on her medal.
Mary Queen of Scots used the impress of her mother, Mary of Lorraine, a phœnix in flames, and the motto: "En ma fin est mon commencement." A phœnix in flames upon a castle was the badge of Queen Jane Seymour, the crest of the Seymours being a phœnix in flames issuing from a ducal coronet. Her son, Edward VI., added the motto, "Nascatur ut alter" ("That another may be born"), alluding to the nature of her death. She lies buried in St. George's Chapel, Windsor, with a Latin
epitaph by Bishop Godwin, which has been thus translated by his son Morgan:
Queen Elizabeth placed a phœnix upon her medals and tokens with her favourite motto: "Semper eadem" ("Always the same"), and sometimes with the motto "Sola phœnix omnis mundi" ("The sole phœnix of the whole world"); and on the other side, "Et Angliæ gloria" ("And the glory of England"), with her portrait full-faced. By the poets of the time, Elizabeth was often compared to the phœnix. Sylvester, in his "Corona Dedicatoria," says:
And Shakespeare, in the prophecy which he puts into the mouth of Cranmer at the baptism of the Princess Elizabeth, her great and glorious reign is foreshadowed, and finally:
Shakespeare elsewhere uses the simile to denote a phœnix among women—a phœnix, a paragon, unique, because alone of its kind:
Many other heraldic mottoes have been associated with this celebrated device. The following are from "Historic Devices, Badges," &c., by Mrs. Bury Palliser:
Eleanor, Queen of Francis I. of Austria: "Non est similis illi" ("There is none like her"). She afterwards changed her motto, either showing how much she was neglected, or to express her determination to remain single: "Unica semper avis" ("Always a solitary bird").
Bona of Savoy: "Solo facta solum deum sequor."
Cardinal Trent: "Ut vivat" ("That it may live").
Linacre: "Vivat post funera virtus" ("Virtue survives death").
"De mi muerte ma vida" ("From my death my life").
"De mort à vie" ("From death to life").
"Et morte vitam protulit" ("And by death has prolonged his life").
"Ex morte, immortalitas" ("Out of death, immortality").
"Murio y nacio" ("I die and am born").
"Ne pereat" ("That it should not perish").
"O mors, ero mors tua" ("O death, I shall be thy death").
"Se necat ut vivat" ("Slays himself that he may live").
"Trouva sol nei tormenti it suo gioire ("It finds alone its joy in its suffering").
"Vivre pour mourir, mourir pour vivre" ("Live to die, die to live").
"Uror, morior, orior" ("I am burnt, I die, I arise").
The phœnix in heraldry is never represented in other than in one position, rising from flames, that is, with expanded wings and enveloped in flames of fire in which it is being consumed. It is usually represented exactly as an eagle in shape, but may be of any of the heraldic tinctures.
The phœnix is of frequent use in heraldry, and borne by many families in the United Kingdom. A phœnix issuing from a ducal coronet is the crest of the Duke of Somerset.
Linacre, founder of the College of Physicians, and honorary physician to four sovereigns has on his tomb in Westminster Abbey the device of the phœnix, with the motto, "Vivat post funera virtus" ("Virtue survives death").
From the association of this fabulous bird with alchemy, Paracelsus wrote concerning it, and several alchemists employed it to symbolise their vocation. It was adopted by the Apothecaries’ Company as crest, and is a frequent sign over chemists’ shops.
A phœnix in flames proper, gorged with a mural coronet, is the allusive crest of the Fenwicks; the motto over the crest is the cri de guerre, "A Fenwick! a Fenwick!" They were a family noted in border warfare. "The house of Percy," says Mrs. Bury Palliser, "ever ranked the Fenwicks among the most valiant of its retainers, and in border warfare the
banner of the gorged phœnix in the burning flame always appeared with that of the silver crescent of the Percys."
The bird of paradise is interesting as having for a time been accepted as the veritable phœnix, a fact which has escaped Gibbon. That luxurious Emperor, Heliogabalus, having eaten, as he thought, of every known delicacy, bethought him one day of the fabled phœnix. What mattered it that only one bird existed at a time; that one, the imperial gourmand must have, and was inconsolable that he had not thought of it before. The zeal of proconsuls was equal to the great occasion, and from all parts of the earth came strange and wondrous birds, each affirmed with confidence to be "the sacred solitary bird, that knows no second, knows no third." The cankerworm of doubt remains! At last, one day there was brought to Rome from the far islands of the Eastern seas a bird, the like of which for the glory of its plumage had never been seen out of paradise, the veritable phœnix, Bird of the Sun!" The sight of the magnificent creature carried conviction with it. Heliogabalus ate in faith, and went to his fathers contented.
174:* Book x. ch. 2.