Artists of Northern Europe, Books, Flemish primitives, Illuminated manuscripts

Hidden in Plain Sight :Visual evidence of travellers’ tales & trade in birds & other marvellous beasts

Below is the outline for the paper I will be presenting at the international conference titled Maritime Animals being held at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, between 25-27th April 2019.  This paper will discuss just one element of my research into the visual evidence of trade with the Far East that is evident in surviving works of art, manuscripts and portraits created long before Vasco de Gama discovered the sea route to the Spice Islands in 1498.


Before 1498 the Venetians and Genoans were the dominant traders with the Arab tribes who monopolised the maritime and land trade routes with the Far East. At school we are taught that Columbus ‘sailed the ocean blue’ in 1492 and in 1522 Magellen’s fleet circumnavigated the world.  However, in 1998 the discovery of a wreck of a 9thcentury ocean going Arab dhow off Belitung Island, Indonesia and the re-discovery of a collection of 10thcentury Arab coins found on a beach in 1944 near Darwin, Australia in 2012[i], proved conclusively that a maritime trade route with the Far East existed centuries before Marco Polo’s adventures of the late 13thcentury.


In 1498 the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered the route to India via the Cape of Good Hope.  Parrots are depicted in classical and medieval bestiaries and on a 14thcentury genealogy roll.  In addition other birds and animals native to the Spice Islands are also evident in other documents and works of art. An illustration from the 1332 best seller, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville deserves reconsideration as to what these bagpipe playing animals could be, and an Indian ring-necked parakeet (indegenous to sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian sub-continent) appears in a Flemish 15thcentury altarpiece (Figure 2).

Screenshot 2019-04-17 at 07.59.03
Detail from the Van Eyck altarpiece of Canon van der Pael & the Virgin 1436. Groeninge Museum, Bruges. (Public domain)

Angels with wings showing identifiable feathers from exotic birds from India, the Indonesian archipelago and possibly Australia, appear in Books of Hours, 15thcentury altarpieces and margins of many illuminated manuscripts.  Manu manuscripts contain visual references to monkeys. Specifically, a South American Capuchin monkey appears in a portrait miniature of a Tudor queen dated 1526.

This paper will discuss the requirement for a re-evaluation of visual evidence of the trade in exotic birds and animals in the light of the discoveries of the 9thcentury Arab wreck, 10thcentury Arab coins, and the New World.

End of Abstract.

In 2014 the Australian academic, Dr Heather Dalton, identified a sulphur crested cockatoo in an Italian altarpiece painted in 1496.  Sulphur crested cockatoos come from east of the Wallace line, established in the late 19thcentury by Alfred Russel Wallace and the greater crested sulphur crested cockatoo is native as far down to Tasmania. This 15thcentury bird could have only come through the Arab maritime trade routes.

Screenshot 2019-04-17 at 08.14.19
Madonna della Vittoria. 1496. Andrea Mantegna. Louvre, Paris.

Since 2014 Dr Dalton has discovered more images of cockatoos in a European manuscript that dates from 1240. My paper will be adding to the visual evidence of other birds and beasts being traded as items of curiosity during the early modern period and earlier.

Since the discovery of the Belitung wreck (also called the Tang wreck after the Chinese dynasty in power at the time of the shipwreck) many more have been discovered in the seas off Indonesia and mainland SE Asia.  Unfortunately many of these wreck sites have been looted. There is legal protection for these marine archaeological sites, but unfortunately it is very difficult to police them.  The intact Belitung wreck cargo provided in excess of 30,000 items of china, as well as gold and silver artefacts and jars still containing a residue of their organic spicey content after 1100 years at the bottom of the sea has provided solid physical evidence for the surviving documentary evidence of trade with this part of the world dating back to the time of Pliny the Elder and ancient Rome.   The Belitung wreck story and artefacts are now housed in Singapore at the Asian Civilisations Museum.

Thankfully, there are marine archaeologists who have surveyed many of these sites and written extensively on their finds. Now a new area of research has opened up providing us landlubbers with a new insight into our history that cocks a snook at what we were taught in history lessons at school. Anyone interested in the history of world trade, then, as a starting point I strongly recommend Professor Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads : A New History of The World.

The conference at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Greenwich is open for booking and you can do the whole conference, or just book for a day or two. Here is the link to the conference website.  The original schedule has been re-arranged and my paper is now re-scheduled for Saturday 27th April.

I would like to thank Heather Darsie (& her parrot Mavius), Sarah Bryson, Professors Pat Wiltshire and David Hawksworth, Dr Ros Daykin and Martin Caunce (for all things peacock), geologist John Carlile, Hilary Livesy, Elaine Currie, Roger Banks and Paul Deo for their faith and support when others doubted me.


[i]These coins were found in 1944 in an island just north of Darwin. Due to possible invasion by Japanese forces these were put in a tin and thrown into a drawer only to be forgotten about until 2012.

©MVT 2019.

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