The peacock and the phoenix in the heart of pagano-christian polemics
The present piece sets itself to assessing what religious and thematic values attach to the figures of both phenix and peacock that emerge in pictorial depictions from the Pompeiian Domus of Euxinus and the Roman Villa of the Casale, Piazza Armerina, as well as in the fourth-century AD literature (Lactantius, Claudianus). The symbolism of those birds is undoubtedly related to the notion of the immortality of the soul, and, in the case of the phenix, to that of resurrection. As such, the phenix cuts right into the core of the intellectual polemics that pitted Pagans against Christians in the fourth and early fifth centuries, the vitality of which is (once more) demonstrated by the novel parallels between Lactantius and Claudianus the present study puts forward. This means that the images of phenix and peacock on display in the paintings and mosaics from Roman private houses ought not to be taken at face value, qua mere ornaments culled from catalogues of decorative patterns with an eye only for their aesthetic values; these birds do actually cater to the personal likes of the owners, something which, in the case of the Villa of the Casale, which, as it turns out, might well have belonged to the illustrious, nay even infamous, Pagan Nicomachus Flavianus the Elder, brings forth welcome corroboration to both the reality and the strength of the ideological tug of war between Pagans and Christians Nichomachus was a signal part of, and the motivgeschichtlich influence of Philostratus’ Life of Apollonios of Tyana over the iconography of the Sicilian villa.
Keywords: Symbolisme religieux du paon et du phénix, immortalité, résurrection, polémique pagano-chrétienne, Villa du Casale à Piazza Armerina, Nicomaque Flavien senior, Lactance, Claudien.
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