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The Ostrich: An Unexpected Allegory

Una D'Elia

Una D'Elia
Photo: Bernard Clark

The ostrich, the world’s largest and heaviest bird, is quite a curious looking creature with its long and skinny neck, small head, prominent eyes and legs that seem to go on for miles. For centuries, the strange form and habits of this flightless bird known as the Struthio camelus or “sparrow camel” both baffed and amazed ancient, medieval, and Renaissance scientists who encountered it. They viewed the peculiar creature as a hybrid – half bird, half beast.

For the past few years, associate professor of art history Dr. Una D’Elia has been on an ostrich hunt throughout most of Italy and other parts of Europe. Exploring museums, palaces, places of worship and archives, she has uncovered dozens of images of the exotic bird. This may seem like a curious quest, but D’Elia was initially drawn to the bird because of its strange but deliberate use in one of the last paintings attributed to the revered high- Renaissance artist, Raphael. On the wall of the Sala di Costantino in the Vatican Palace, Raphael painted the well-known figure of Lady Justice (Issue 5, page 19). But there is something strange here – in one hand, she holds the traditional attribute of the scales, but her other hand, rather than wielding the customary sword, is curled around the neck of an alert, realistic and aggressively ugly ostrich. Why? How would Renaissance visitors to the Vatican have understood this weird interloper? Such questions sparked D’Elia’s interest in the strange allegorical imagery of the 16th century and are the subject of her forthcoming book, Raphael’s Ostrich (Penn State 2015), which follows depictions of the ostrich through many permutations and shifts in its meaning.

In an age before Darwin, this enormous bird with its “useless” feathers was a living enigma. D’Elia explains, “Ostriches are central to Egyptian beliefs about the passage to the underworld. They were also hunted in the Roman Coliseum and served up at lavish banquets. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, they were objects of curiosity in menageries and of study for scientists. Their strange form and habits were read as moral lessons written in the book of nature, in that these beasts were both reviled as images of heresy,stupidity, and gluttony and praised as exemplars of stoic endurance, among other qualities.” When the ostrich was depicted in art before Raphael, it was often miniaturised and used as a flat symbol with an obvious meaning. For example, ostriches were frequently depicted with a nail in their beak as a symbol of toughness because of their fabled ability to digest iron.


Raphael’s image of the ostrich was drastically different. In the large, naturalistically-painted bird Raphael veiled the meaning and evoked a hidden knowledge – a sort of modern hieroglyph. Raphael’s invention forces us to ask a profound question − how the natural world is imbued with meaning – that D’Elia reveals came to a crisis with the rise of the foundations of both modern art history and natural history.

After his death in 1520, Raphael was enshrined as a god of art, and his work was worshipped and copied over and over. His strange conception of the ostrich became a kind of a classic, which could be imitated, emulated and satirized. However, not only did his followers copy the allegory of the ostrich as justice, they played with it in all sorts of ways, gave new life to the bird, and created their own allegories. D’Elia believes that the ostrich ultimately represents a new tradition invented by Raphael – one that gives free rein to the imagination.

Her unique research on the ostrich has allowed D’Elia to reveal a whole other side of Raphael and a Renaissance far weirder than the classic view. And when you take a closer look, after Raphael ostriches are everywhere –men and women played memory games that involved ostriches, danced in ostrich costumes, collected prints of ostriches, made scientific studies of ostriches, wrote poems about ostriches, invented fantastic ostrich tableware, and painted and sculpted the flightless bird in churches, palaces, villas, pilgrimage destinations, and parade floats. By examining the “vivid oddities, such as the ostrich, we reveal fundamental issues about art, the natural world, the role of fantasy, and the ways in which images convey meaning in the Renaissance.”

And this is a story that cannot be told without the ostriches.

Quick facts about ostriches:

  • The ostrich is the world’s largest and heaviest bird, growing up to 10 ft. tall and weighing up to 350 lbs.
  • The ostrich is the only bird with two toes on each foot – one reason it was likened to a camel.
  • While they cannot fly, the ostrich can run at speeds of up to 70 km/hr.
  • Ostriches have the largest eyes of any land animal and the smallest brains in ratio to their body size.
  • The ostrich was originally native to the Middle East and Africa, which is why ostriches are invoked in the Bible. The Middle Eastern ostrich was hunted to extinction in the feather boom of the 19th century.
  • Contrary to popular belief, the ostrich does not bury its head in the sand when threatened, but it does eat iron, and so our view of the ostrich is even less accurate than the Renaissance one.

Melinda Knox
(e)Affect Issue 5 Spring 2014