Parrots first became european symbols of status, wealth and power when Alexander the Great is said to have brought the Indian ring necked parakeet back from India in the second century B.C. Legend has it that wild green parakeets in gardens of an Indian temple repeated the prayers chanted by the monks leading to the common belief that these birds were holy because of their ability to speak with a human voice. Documentary evidence records the numbers of parrots owned and traded, but the varieties are not described. The medieval bestiaries both describe parrots as Psittacus viridis and some have coloured images of green parrots. To date only two secular thirteenth century books have been found that describe other species of parrots either visually, or in the written word. Archaeologic digs in Turkey and Spain have revealed ancient mosaics of green parakeets and, in one instance of a multi-coloured parrot. How the green ring necked parakeets were transported from India has long been a matter of speculation. It is possible they were brought back overland by an enterprising soldier in the army of Alexander the Great, but considering the Arabs had ocean going dhows and links with the many ports on India’s west coast, the maritime route is more likely.
The sea going Arab merchants were, for centuries, the purveyors of spices, silks, ceramics and very probably parrots and other exotic birds that came from much farther east than India. Marine archaeology has provided evidence that Arab traders had penetrated the Straits of Malacca by at least the ninth century. Equally, Chinese, Javanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Japanese traders were plying the seas trading in luxury goods and everyday staples. The city that is now known as Jakarta was an important hub for these Far Eastern merchants, as well as the more adventurous Arabs.
The earliest european detailed account of birds that came from the Far East is contained in Marco Polo’s detailed description of his twenty six years in the Far East in the service of the Great Khan and describes what he encountered in the lands he visited during that period. However, one description appears to be deliberate obfuscation regarding the location of the Molucca Islands, the highly prized source of the cloves and nutmegs. Polo describes a kingdom situated 500 miles southwest of Malabar where “… there are many strange animals that are unlike those found anywhere else in the world…” The English translations are consistent in describing a country that “… is different from ours, and better and more beautiful”. Sailing southwest from Malabar in India would bring a traveller to the string of coral atolls known today as the Maldives, that had a fishing based economy, had converted to Islam in the twelfth century, and lie off the coast of India. Polo’s Travels were a best seller of their time, but reproduction relied on scribes laboriously copying the text. In addition the original text was translated into other languages, and this opens up the probability of these translators adding in their own opinions and bias depending on whether or not they had a religious or political agenda – or perhaps both. The early fourteenth century French version of Polo’s travels, together with those of Oderic de Pordeone is in the Biblioteque National de France ref FR2810. This exquisite manuscript has wonderful illuminations by some of the great, but unfortunately anonymous, illuminators known as “Master of …”. Folio 51r shows sacks full of spices being unloaded and taken into a walled town.
However, if you are looking for realistic depictions of the places Polo talks about you will be disappointed as the illuminators are consistent in how they portray the travellers, except in rare circumstances such as folio 21v which shows a Bactrian camel, and the recording the harvesting of pepper on f84r.
From the late thirteenth century until 1527, the Javanese Majapahit empire dominated the maritime trade route to and from the Spice Islands and by travelling 500 miles northeast of the area around Mount Malabar (a pepper growing region) situated on western Java, the traveller would reach the Molucca Islands, also known as The Spice Islands. These lie on the eastern side of a line running between the islands of Bali and Lombok to the south and north between Borneo and Sulawesi, known as the Wallace Line, where the flora and fauna of Asia becomes separate from that of Australasia. In other words, this is a place where the fauna is “… different from ours” as described by Marco Polo. Where the evidence for his statement lies, would not be stated accuratly in documentary form as that would reveal the whereabouts of the valuable spice islands. In the thirteenth century the spice trade was dominated by the seagoing Arab merchants who were travelling to the markets on the west coast of southern India and even as far as the markets of China, the ancient kingdoms of what is now Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, Malaya and modern Indonesia. While rare spices such as cloves and the even more elite nutmeg found only on one island in the Banda Sea, were the main focus of trade, single items such as brightly coloured parrots that could mimic human speech also found their way to Europe. Just which tribes were trading these birds is yet unknown, but many of the indigenous people of modern Indonesia and Papua New Guinea use feathers in tribal ceremonial dress.
The Chinese were travelling as far as the markets of India and in the fifteenth century Admiral Zeng He got as far as the east coast of Africa, sailing up to the Horn of Africa, and to the ports on the coast of what we know as Yemen and the Saudi Peninsula . It is this Chinese admiral who transported a giraffe to Peking from Malindi.
In other words, european people had little knowledge that outside the Mediterranean Sea the world was a very big place and many nations were sailing the oceans. The Arabs had maintained the monopoly for providing those luxury items such as spices, silks, porcelain and more esoteric commodities such as exotic birds, mostly different varieties of parrots, but also both the Indian blue and rarer Javanese green peacocks, from at least the time of Pliny the Elder and other Roman authors. By the middle ages the Mediterranean was dominated by the merchants of Venice, Genoa and Pisa. Venice being dominant in the east and Genoa to the west. In 1453 the Venetian merchant, Giorgio Ruzzini, died while travelling back to the Republic on an Alexandrian galley, which gave the captain of the ship the problem of what to do with the merchant’s caged parrot. The bird, complete with a store of birdseed, was listed in the inventory of Ruzzini’s goods taken at the time of his death, but we are left wondering whether it was the man’s personal pet or if it had been obainted to order for a specific individual; neither is there a description or any hint from where the bird might have originated.
While parrots were exported to the west as curiosities, research has revealed there was a flourishing trade in exotic birds, especially parrots, as luxury items and diplomatic gifts in China and Japan between the seventh and sixteenth centuries. As with western documents, research into the trading records in Japanese and Chinese archives has not so far provided any detailed descriptions of parrots. While archival records in England and Venice document the importation of parrots, there is a lack of any written description of colour, or from where the birds originated, leaving us no option but to rely on identifying examples of the various rare and exotic parrots that have survived as decorative elements in illuminated manuscripts and paintings that could have been inspired by sight of, or descriptions of exotic birds from far off places.
Wings of angels portrayed in a bright array of colours found in early fifteenth century manuscripts and works of art have long been regarded as the product of artistic imagination because the only species of parrot known across Europe at that time was the green Indian ring necked parakeet. Bearing in mind Polo’s descriptions of the variety of coloured parrots he saw on his travels, and our own knowledge of the variety of colours and sizes of parrots native to the Far East that we keep today as pets, we should not dismiss the portrayals of angels with wings of many colours, as mere inventions of the artists’ imagination. Whether the artists saw live, stuffed or skinned specimens or were working from verbal descriptions is unknown, but the explosion of angels with different coloured wings, often of more than one colour, from the middle of the fourteenth century points to the workshops having some knowledge of birds with highly coloured plumage. Since the parrots ability to speak with a human voice meant they were speaking the words of God, it stands to reason that angels, as part of the heavenly host, would also have wonderfully coloured wings like their earthly avian counterparts.
In the mid fifteenth century, the Portuguese prince known as Henry the Navigator, sponsored various voyages to find a sea route to the lucrative markets fo the Far East, and to break the Arab monopoly, but it was not until 1498 that Vasco de Gama finally rounded the tip of the Cape of Good Hope and got to India. Prior to de Gama’s voyage there had been others that had got as far as the tip of Africa, proving there was a route to the Indian Ocean.
Equally as famous was the voyage of Christopher Columbus who sailed westwards in search of a route to fabled Cathay, but stumbled on islands that led to the disovery of a whole new continent. The discovery and exploration of the New World at the latter end of the fifteenth century brought new species of parrots for the enjoyment of the rich and powerful and are portrayed in sixteenth century paintings and pages of illuminated manuscripts created for the king of Portugal and wealthy Portuguese courtiers and members of the Hapsburg dynasty. While these birds came from new lands, they often displayed similar coloured plumage to their Old World counterparts and were also immortalised in paint.
Old World Green Parrots
Alexander the Great is alleged to have imported the ring necked parakeet overland from India, following his Indian campaign conducted between 327 – 325BC, but it is not until a mosaic floor panel, dating from the second century BC, depicting a ring necked parakeet was unearthed in Palace V of the Pergamon Acropolis in Turkey, do we have any hard evidence of such a bird having reached somewhere touching the eastern edge of europe.
The first century Roman author, Pliny the Elder, described this bird as coming from India and being “… a green bird with a red circlet around its neck. It can be taught to speak; it greets its master and repeats words said to it.”  It was not until the seventh century do we have the earliest Christian description of a parrot in the writings of bishop, Isidore of Seville, who described the bird as follows: “It makes a greeting naturally, saying “(H)ave!… Other words it learns by being taught.” While Pliny provides us with an accurate physical description and place of origin, he was a pagan, therefore Bishop Isidore’s description is repeated in the medieval bestiaries, while any accompanying sketch or a fully illuminated image of a green parrot with a red beak and rosy ring around its neck was clearly inspired by Pliny’s description. However, the distribution of ring necked parakeets is not confined to India, and a sub-species is featured on the Cantino Planisphere produced in Lisbon by an unknown artist in 1502. The anonymous artist has shown green parrots with long green tails on the west coast of Africa, which are probably the sub-species of the ring necked parakeet indigenous to Guinea, Senegal, Southern Mauritania, Somalia, northern Ethiopia and Sudan, all areas known to the Portuguese by 1502. It is likely that many of this sub-species were imported to the Mediterranean by unscrupulous traders who knew they could charge a high price if the birds were described as coming from India, rather than sub-Saharan Africa.
The earliest rendition of a parrot found so far, is an early twelfth century copy of an eleventh century codex,which includes a section on the Marvels of the East. The copy is kept the Bodleian library while the original is in the British Library. The Bodleian manuscription contains a monochrome pen and ink sketch of the bird with a latin description as it being a ‘Psittacus viridis’ i.e. a green parrot. The original eleventh century codex is missing this folio, which is believed to have been lost in the Cotton library fire of 1731.
Progressing to the early 14th century, the anonymous English artist of the highly decorated Luttrell Psalter produced in Lincoln between 1325 and 1340, depicts a ring necked green parrot with a red beak and feet. The commissioning of such a luxuriously illuminated psalter tells us of Sir Geoffrey’s piety, as well as his wealth and status so we have to consider the possibility the artist was under instruction to include the family parrot as part of the decoration. However, in the absence of any documentary evidence, this idea has to remain speculation.
Created towards the end of the fourteenth century, a green parrot with red eyes, beak and feet, with wings outstretched showing its yellow underwing feathers, sits at the right hand edge of the margin of a full page illumination of The Visitation in a book of hours created in Paris at the end of the 14th century.
The Merode altarpiece created in the 1420s by the workshop of Robert Campin captures the moment the archangel Gabriel disturbs the Virgin Mary at her devotions and announces she is about become pregnant by the Holy Ghost. A naked Christ, portrayed as a homunculus carrying a crucifix, is shown being transferred by the Holy Ghost (represented by a golden beam) directed at the Virgin’s ear, her pregnancy becoming fact as she hears Gabriel’s words. Similar to the bird in the margin of the book of hours, Campin’s Gabriel has yellow underwings.
Click on the link in the caption for a closer look to see Christ on the sunbeam, and for the Met’s description of this beautiful altarpiece.
It is no wonder that Gabriel, as God’s herald, and green being the colour signifying hope, has been depicted having green feathered wings. Since the parrots’ ability to speak in a human voice was believed to be communication from the Divine, Campin has given the archangel Gabriel the wings of a parrot as a visual reminder that the message he brings is directly from God. Likewise, perhaps the artist of late fourteenth century portrayal of The Visitation included the green parrot as a focus for private meditation on the coming of Christ, who would bring the Word of God to earth. In both cases, the colour green symbolising hope, adds another element for meditation by the faithful.
Painting a decade later than Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck included a ring-necked parakeet in his panel depicting the kneeling Canon van der Paele being presented to the Virgin and Child by St George.
The infant Christ Child is seated on his mother’s knee with his right hand on the wing of a green ring-necked parakeet. The bird is rendered so realistically that van Eyck must have had access to a live specimen. Hyderbad in the centre of India was the centre of the gem trade and many of the jewels on the Virgin’s robe may have come from there. Pearls were came from many places in warm seas. The size, uniformity of shape, and colour of the pearl making each pearl more valuable.
In his consideration of this panel Dr Stephen Hanley focuses on the layers of spiritual symbolism attributed to the Canon’s spectacles, but does not totally ignore the parrot. Quoting Francisco de Retza’s words of 1425, “If a parrot has the power from nature to say Ave, why might not a pure Virgin conceive through [the word] Ave?” Conception via the Virgin’s ear being Church doctrine suggests this is one reason for the parrot being included., 
The examples of green parrots in the books of hours and altarpieces suggests these anonymous artists had access to examples of these birds, but whether they were live or dead specimens is unknown.
Much later in the fifteenth century the Venetian artist, Vittorio Carpaccio, provides us with an example of a green parakeet shown at the feet of the lady to the rear of the balcony in this panel of two Venetian ladies, now in the Museo Correr, Venice. Its pose is similar to the parrot seen in the 2nd century BC mosaic from the Pergamon acropolis.
Once the lower part of a much larger panel (the upper part now being in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles), this image was thought to be of two courtesans. The presence of this green parrot, plus the peacock, the lapdog and the much larger canine being teased by the woman nearest the viewer, speaks of the wealth and high status of the family to which these two ladies belonged. As to whether the parrot was an Indian ring necked parakeet, this might only be revealed when seeing the original.
In Andrea Mantegna’s 1496 altarpiece, Madonna della Vittoria, the court artist to the powerful dukes of Mantua has included two unidentified predominantly green parrots, that may be a pair immediately above the seated Virgin and Child. The bird in the middle appears completely green and is possibly a female Australian King Parrot, whose head, back and upper chest is green, but it is difficult to tell as it has its back to us. The absence of a rosy ring around its neck suggests it is not an Indian ring necked parakeet.
The bird to the right of the green parrot has similar markings to a male Australian King Parrot, which has green wings, with a marked red head,
but might also be a male Chattering Lory, a bird indigenous to the Molucca Islands and endangered due to trapping for the pet trade. This species has green wings and a red back, and a shorter tail than the Australian King parrot. Since the tail is not visible in Mantegna’s altarpiece it is impossible to tell.
Both the Chattering Lory and the Australian King Parrot have beaks that are red or pale red, which is apparent on the bird shown in profile, and both species come from east of the Wallace line. While Chattering Lorys are indigenous to both mainland Australia and the islands to the north, Australian King parrots are only found on the Australian mainland. The discovery of a wreck of a ninth century ocean-going Arab dhow off the Indonesian island of Belitung in 1998, and the discovery of ninth century Arab coins minted in Kilwa, East Africa, on the Wessel Islands north of Darwin during World War 2, has led to speculation that at least one Arab trader reached the islands just to the north of the Australian mainland. Click on the link in the caption of the line drawing of the Wallace Line in the section on white parrots (below) to see the geography of the area surrounding the Spice Islands, to see how close they are to the north of Australia. The Wessel Islands are also identififed. Wallace’s map shows just how close these islands are to the islands to the north. Captain Cook sailed these shallow waters in the late eighteenth century.
If, in the late fifteenth century, king parrots were to be found only on the Australian mainland, the presence of this bird and the ninth century coins minted at Kilwa, East Africa, suggests Arab merchants may have traded directly with the Yolngu, the aboriginal people of the Wessel Islands. The other possibility is that other traders, such as the Javanese, were the middlemen between the Yolngu of the Wessel Islands and the Arab traders. Sunda Kelepa, the old port of modern day Jakarta, was the hub of the Javanese Sunda Kingdom for local and international trade with merchants visiting from China, Vietnam and Arabia, so it is not impossible that the occasional exotic parrot from secret places known only to the Javanese were traded through this port.
New World Green Parrots
In 1450 Portuguese Prince Henry, known as ‘the Navigator’ began the process of sending ships to explore the west coast of Africa in search of a sea route to the Indian markets, an event exacerbated by the fall of Christian Constantinople in 1453. In 1492 Columbus sailed west and claimed a New World in the name of Spain, and these voyages by Spain and Portugal led to the 1494 Treaty of Torsedillas which divided any new discoveries of new lands between Spain and Portugal along a line 100 leagues (345 miles) west of Cape Verde. Only six years later Vasco de Gama sailed around Africa and reached India. Setting sail in 1500 the Portuguese captain, Pedro Cabral, sailed far west on the Atlantic in order to avoid an area of little wind known as The Doldrums and in the April landed on an unexpected land mass, now known as Brazil. This led to the previous demarcation line between Spanish and Portuguese lands being moved in 1506 a further 270 leagues (932 miles) west giving Portugal a more sizeable chunk of South America.
A letter dated 1st May 1500 to Manuel I of Portugal, written by Pedro Vas de Caminha, was despatched by ship to Lisbon to inform the Portuguese king of the important discovery of a new land. With it went two green parrots, a red macaw and a cloak of feathers worn by members of the local tribe.
An example of a Brazilian green parrot appears in the da Costa Hours illuminated by Flemish illuminator, Simon Bening, circa 1515. This bird has red as well as green tail feathers, which is a common feature of many of the south American green parrots and parakeets.
This early sixteenth century book of hours originally belonged to the de Sá family. The scrivener João de Sá was one of those who accompanied Cabral, having previously sailed with de Gama to India in 1497. That a new species of green parrot originating from the New World would be commemorated in a devotional manuscript commissioned for a person who had been present at the discovery of a new land, makes perfect sense. The de Sá coat of arms lies under that of the da Costa family on folio 1r. and the book is thought to have passed to Don Alvaro da Costa in about 1520.
Bening has included his Brazilian green parrot as part of the marginal decoration of the first text page of the Hours of the Compassion of the Virgin, continuing the association of a green parrot and the Virgin as seen in the full page illumination in the 15th century books of hours, Robert Campin’s Merode altarpiece and Van Eyck’s painting of the Virgin and Canon van der Paele. How the Bruges based Bening knew about the distinctive tail feathers of South American parrots some years before his collaboration with the Portuguese court artist, Antonio de Hollanda, and why the de Sá coat of arms lies under those of da Costa, requires further research.
Another example of a green parrot with red tail feathers is shown at the top of the April calendar page in the Book of Hours of Don Manuel I, also painted c1515. The illumination of this manuscript is attributed to de Hollanda. The presence of the green parrot with a distinctive red tail appearing on the calendar page of the month Cabral’s fleet reached Brazil and painted by the Portuguese court artist in a royal book of hours is patently a celebration of the discovery of new Portuguese territory. You will have to take my word for it, as there are no creative commons images for this book of hours. It is exquisite.
Poems featuring green parrots
‘La Premiere Epistre le l’Amant Vert’, by Lemaire de Belges, dedicated to Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, de Belges’ ‘green lover’ takes the guise of the green parrot that belonged to the Regent and the poem may have had a symbolic ‘consolatory purpose’ as Margaret’s second husband, Philip de Savoie had died the year previously in 1504. Hapsburg court musician, Pierre de la Rue, set de Belges’ poem to music, ‘Soubz ce tumbel’, publishedc1510, in tribute to this parrot.
Writing in 1521 the poet John Skelton also uses the voice of a green parrot in his poem, ‘Speke Parott’ and the bird’s plumage is described in lines 16 and 17. Whether there was a parrot at the court of Henry VIII, or if Skelton had been inspired by the work of de Belges and de la Rue, is unknown.
In ‘The Testament of the Papyngo’ of 1530, Scottish courtier and poet, David Lyndsay, uses the idea of a dying parrot to give moral advice to King James V of Scotland (1512 – 1542). Unlike de Belges and Skelton the poet fails to describe what the parrot looked like. However, since the poem is taken as evidence for a parrot being at the court of James V, we should accept Skelton’s poem as evidence of one also being at the Tudor court.
Whether these poetic parrots, green, or in the case of the papyngo perhaps of another colour, came from the Old or New world is unknown.
Parrots of other colours
A genealogy roll depicting English kings from the Heptarchy until Edward I, created in the last quarter of the thirteenth century, affords us an image of a parrot native to lands on the west coast of Africa well south of the Sahara desert. A king of England is depicted seated within a roundel and communing with a parrot, shown as having grey stripes.
The striped grey markings are in marked contrast to the green parrots described in the bestiaries and the bird appears to be a portrayal of an African grey.
There are two species of African grey parrots; one has a bright red tail (Psittacus Erithacus) which is indigenous to Angola, Cameroon, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda.
The parrot’s bright red tail feathers are very evident.
The other is the Timneh grey species (Psittacus Timneh)
found in the forests of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia as well as the Ivory Coast.The Timneh has a maroon tail as opposed to the bright red of its relative. Like many of the parrot species these birds are long lived, intelligent and excellent mimics of the human voice.
The English genealogy roll predates the Portuguese voyages of discovery by nearly two centuries, and while the grey stripes suggest an African grey, the tail feathers are not painted either bright red or maroon, but that does not mean the parrot was not a grey parrot, merely that the illuminator did not see it and was probably working from a verbal description that lacked detail. Sailing down the west coast of Africa in 1450, sailing under the Portuguese flag the Venetian captain Alvise, Cadamosta, reached as far south as modern day Sierra Leone. Thirty two years later Portuguese explorer Bartolomeus Diaz reached the Congo river. Prior to these voyages either species of grey parrot would have come to europe via the east African ports of Zanzibar, Dar Es Salaam, Kilwa in Mozambique, Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu or Mogadishu where archaeological evidence has shown that Arab traders had commercial connections with the African interior from long before the twelfth century.
The presence of an African grey on a thirteenth century illuminated membrane prompts the question as to whether the parrot been seen by, or described to, the anonymous artist? The provenance of this manuscript prior to it being in the collection of Sir John Lumley is unknown. An inventory of goods belonging to London merchant, Robert Buckman, taken in the fifteenth century reveals that Buckman supplied a parrot to the court of Henry V. Unfortunately the colours or origins of Henry V’s parrot are again left undescribed, which supports my theory that whoever described the parrot to the anonymous illuminator failed to notice what coloured tail the bird had.
After the death of Portuguese Prince Henry in 1460, Portuguese voyages of exploration were confined to developing trading links with nations on the west coast of Africa. It was not until Don Joao II succeeded to the Portuguese throne in 1481, and needed to add to the royal coffers, that the king sponsored a new programme of exploration to find the sea route to the lucrative markets in India culminating in Vasco de Gama reaching Calicut in 1498. The discovery of the sea route finally broke the Arab and Venetian domination of the maritime trade in luxury items from the Far East.
When Cabral discovered the new land mass of what eventually became known as Brazil in 1500, the letter of 1stMay sent to King Manuel I informing him of the discovery contained a description of the natives who wore ‘hat[s] of long feathers with a little tuft of red and grey feathers like those of a parrot.’  This comparison suggests the writer was aware of a species of parrot that had red and grey feathers.
An African grey can be found on a membrane of an unfinished sixteenth century illuminated genealogy roll commissioned from Portuguese court artist, Antonio de Hollanda and Flemish illuminator, Simon Bening, by the diplomat Damãio de Gôi in the late 1520s. On the lowest tier of the family tree of the kings of Navarre and Aragon, a grey parrot, with two long red tail feathers, is perched on the branch of the tree where Garcia Sanchez II de Pamplona, the tenth century king of Aragon who reigned from 994 – 1000/04 is seated.
The project was intended to be a collaboration between the Portuguese court artist, de Hollanda who would produce the drawings, and Bening, who would bring the drawings to life with his superb use of colour. The Flemish illuminator was responsible for illuminating five folios, including the one of the house of Navarre and Aragon with the grey parrot. Since we know de Hollanda did the drawings and resided in Portugal, then this grey parrot may be the same bird Caminha mentioned in his letter to Manuel I of 1st May. The long red tail feathers are a mystery since both species of African grey parrot have stumpy tail feathers. If you look closer toward the top of the page it is possible to see a tiger walking along a tree branch, distinguishable by its stripes; and a peacock identifiable – both from India, and known in europe since Roman times.
By the seventeenth century, parrots were more commonplace, but owning one was still seen as a status symbol. It had been realised their capability of human speech was mimetic and were no longer considered as a communication channel from the Divine. There are two slightly different versions of a Dutch woman feeding what is clearly an African grey parrot with a stumpy bright red tail, painted by Frans van Mieris the elder in the 1660s. One version (in a private collection) is on panel, and the other on copper, is held by London’s National Gallery. A further version is in the Royal Collections Trust (RCIN 404617) https://www.rct.uk/collection/404617/a-lady-with-her-parrot
Marco Polo’s description of parrots continues “There are many strange animals that are unlike those found anywhere else in the world… Parrots of many kinds, some are entirely white – as white as snow, with feet and beaks of scarlet.”
The twentieth century English translations of Polo’s adventures are consistent in describing a country that “… is different from ours, and better and more beautiful”, which fits Wallace’s line differentiating the flora and fauna of Asia and Australasia.
Sulphur crested cockatoos also feature in Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II’s book of Hunting with Birds written around 1250. In 2014 Dr Heather Dalton identified the sulphur crested cockatoo in Mantegna’s altarpiece, Madonna della Vittoria, a bird from east of the Wallace line. The altarpiece was painted in 1496, two years prior to de Gama reaching India. The two examples of sulphur cockatoos being depicted in a manuscript dating from the mid thirteenth century, and an altarpiece in the late fifteenth century, is evidence of these birds having reached the Mediterranean prior to de Gama reaching India, and goes to show that we should trust the visual evidence, just as much as we rely on written documents to reveal the past.
The three birds that appear in the upper portion of Mantegna’s portrayal of the Virgin and Child, being white, green and predominantly red (with green wings), symbolise the three great virtues described by St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. Faith is symbolised by the white cockatoo, with the other two parrots being green for hope and red for the greatest of the three virtues being love. The Wikipedia entry for this altarpiece suggests the sulphur crested cockatoo was a gift from Sultan al-Kamil to Emperor Frederick II. Whoever, wrote that entry should have checked the dates would have revealed that Sultan al-Kamil and Emperor Frederick II lived two centuries earlier than Mantegna.
Since Emperor Frederick II’s book of hunting with birds and Mantegna’s altarpiece were created prior to de Gama’s opening the sea route around the tip of Africa to India in 1498, the cockatoos could only have come via the Venetian trade connections with the Arab merchants trading out of the Levant and Egypt. Therefore, it is probable that other species of parrots from east of the Wallace line would have been traded via these ports, such as the two predominantly green birds of Mantegna’s altarpiece already discussed in the section on green parrots. The only difference is that we have no written evidence describing what these parrots looked like as they are irritatingly listed merely as a parrot, or parrots.
Even for today’s less superstitious audience the colour red is recognised as having several meanings. It not only symbolises love, but sacrifice and martyrdom – red being the same colour as blood.
A depiction of the owner of an early fifteenth century book of hours illuminated by the Boucicaut Master, is shown being presented to the enthroned Virgin and Child by an angel with red wings on folio 137. Two angels, one with red wings (the other with green) announce the birth of the Christ Child to the shepherds on folio 67v. This artist was the leading illuminator of manuscripts in Paris at this time, and known for his naturalistic style of painting. The owner was clearly a wealthy woman, but all we can deduce is that she was possibly named Marguerite due to the predominance of this flower scattered throughout the margins of the book. (Here’s the link to the Getty Museum digital presentation of the whole book of hours. https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/object/103RZW )
Evidence of a red parrot finding its way to Venice a century later appears in the foreground of Vittorio Carpaccio’s ‘Baptism of the Selenites’ commissioned by the confraternity of Serbian immigrants, that still hangs in the Venetian Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. The parrot is to the left of the white dog at the bottom of the white steps.
The artist had been commissioned to paint a series of seven paintings of the three Serbian patron saints, St George, St Jerome and St Trifon, and his inspiration for The Baptism of the Selenites came from the description of St George’s liberation of the Libyan city of Silena from a dragon as told by Jacob de Voraigne. According to legend St George delivered the city from the rapacious dietary requirements of a dragon to whom citizens were sacrificed in order to appease the beast’s appetite. The saint’s success in killing the beast led to 20,000 people being baptised, this event being the overall theme of the painting.
As a symbol of the sacrifices made by the unlucky citizens of Selena suggests Carpaccio wanted to include something red that combined two meanings of sacrifice and martyrdom. In this instance the red parrot represents the noble sacrifice of those individuals who gave their lives for the love of their city as well as those citizens who had survived, and through baptism received the Word of God.
The painting dates from 1506, and since the painting was to hang on the walls of the Serbian Scuola the parrot very probably travelled from its place of origin to Venice along the Arab trade route. Marco Polo gives us a clue to where it probably came from when he says; “Others [parrots] are scarlet and blue and the most delightful sight in the world.” They are found in Australia, Indonesia, the Moluccas, and New Guinea in lowland forests and mangrove swamps.
Red parrots are also mentioned in the chronicle of de Gama’s first voyage to India of 1497-1499 recorded by an anonymous scribe in the early sixteenth century. In the latter text, confusion arises in the 1898 English translation as to the origins of the red parrots in the section ‘Lands beyond Calicut’. Here the chronicler describes a place called Meliqua in the original Portuguese, which is stated as being Malacca in the English version.
From 1299 until 1527 Malacca on the Malay peninsula was part of the Hindu Majapahit empire which stretched from Sumatra in the west to New Guinea in the west, and its central base was on Java. De Gama’s chronicle tells us Meliqua is a place where “there are many big parrots in this country, whose plumage is red like fire. The Portuguese version also states that Meliqua is where cloves come from. In 1498 cloves were only found on the Moluccan Islands. The English translator appears to be confused between the Moluccas where the cloves come from and that lie east of the Wallace line, and the state of Malacca on the Malay peninsula, which is west of this line separating the Asian and Australasian faunal zones. In which case Carpaccio’s red parrot may be a red lory (Eos bornea) or one of its sub-species. Since Venice was still a trading republic in the early sixteenth century it is very probable Carpaccio had access to a bird that had found its way all the way from the Moluccas.
In Italica (now called Santiponce), situated five miles north of Seville, a first century Spanish roman mosaic floor contains two panels. One has the ubiquitous ring necked parakeet, but the other contains a parrot with multi-coloured plumage, which makes us wonder whether the mosaicist used artistic licence to create such a brightly coloured bird, or was he aware of birds with multi-coloured plumage?
Considering that Gabriel has been associated with having green wings in the late fourteenth century book of hours, and by both van Eyck and his contemporary, Robert Campin, in earlier fifteenth century altarpieces, the appearance of Gabriel’s new multicoloured wings suggests van Eyck’s new artistic trend set in his ‘Annunciation’ dated 1534-36 might have been inspired by either seeing or having a bird with spectacular plumage described to him.
A careful examination of the stained glass window of Christ at the top of the panel, reveals the word Asia in the ellipse under His feet, which may give a clue as to where he thought this bird originated.
From this painting stem many other portrayals of angels with wings made up of layers of multi-coloured feathers, or showing wings of green, yellow, blue, white and red feathers and any combination of these colours on panels, books of hours and manuscripts, such as in the illumination of the Annunciation in the Llangattock Hours illuminated by another Flemish artist, William Vrelant. 
Other examples of angels having multi-coloured wings can be seen in many other religious texts such as in the Virgin & Child Enthroned on folio 64 v of the Spinola Hours.
This book of hours was a collaboration between the Master of James IV of Scotland who is generally considered to be Gerard Horenbout, and the Workshop of Master of the First Prayer Book of Maximilian who may be Alexander Bening, Simon Bening’s father. The Horenbout and Bening workshops collaborated in illuminating other manuscripts for powerful secular and religious patrons.
Whether van Eyck was in possession of a bird with multi-coloured plumage or had one described to him is unknown, but the way Gabriel’s wings have been depicted does not look completely natural, suggesting someone may have described multicoloured plumage on the underwings of a bird they had either seen, or had been told about. Both Van Eyck and Vrelant have overlaid peacock tail feathers on the underside of the wing which further suggests the idea may have come from a verbal or written and van Eyck chose to overlay peacock feathers as further decoration.
The central panel of Hugo van der Goes ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’(1475-76), commissioned by the Tommaso Portinari, an agent of the Florentine Medici bank living in Bruges, shows the four archangels kneeling in adoration of the Christ Child. (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/69/Hugo_van_der_Goes_004.jpg). The furthest angel has green wings and kneels next to an angel with stripes of red, yellow, blue and green wing feathers.
The realistic rendition of all the wings of the four archangels suggests van der Goes, unlike Van Eyck or Vrelant, had knowledge of real feathers. Van Eyck may have decided to diversify the colours of Gabriel’s wings because he was inspired by seeing, or hearing a description of rainbow lorikeets from the place Polo described ‘ as being different from ours.”
‘Le Livre des Anges’ contains portrayals of angels wings coloured as a single blocks of pigments. Two illuminations show God the Father with a host of angels with wings of red, green, yellow, white and blue and various combinations of these colours. (Taylor )
Artists were always looking for innovative ideas that would please their patrons so we have to consider whether this angelic host, with wings of many hues, is an artistic response to the workshop Master having read Polo’s Travels and been inspired by his observation that “There are some very tiny ones [parrots], too, that are also very beautiful.” While Polo does not describe the colouring of these very tiny parrots, we know budgerigars are a species of small parakeets and due to careful breeding, now come in an array of colours. In the wild, they are much smaller than those bred in captivity. It is possible Polo did not know the origins of these tiny birds and had only seen captured budgerigars for sale in the markets of the lands he visited on his return journey to europe. Therefore, it is unlikely he knew that budgerigars were only found on mainland Australia.
Rather than the various workshops working in competition with each other, we have to consider that at the very least, descriptions of birds, if not actual examples, were shared between senior Guild members, otherwise how did so many illuminations appear with angels with different coloured wings emerge within a limited time frame.
Visual evidence of the people and places that became part of the Hapsburg empire was recorded by an unknown artist at the beginning of the sixteenth century, but despite Henry VIII’s first wife being Spanish, it would be another sixty three years before a parrot from the Spanish territories of South America appeared in an illuminated manuscript in England.
A sixteenth century sketch book by an unknown artist depicts “Female and male clothing and costumbrista scenes from Spain, America, Portugal, France, England, Holland, Germany, Hungary, Prussia…”. The intent was to portray examples of all the people who made up the Hapsburg empire.
Images of Central and South American people are described with the generic term ‘Indian’. Page 21 shows a man and a woman wearing capes and skirts made of green, blue, red, and yellow feathers and the small child holds his mother’s hand and wears only a skirt of feathers. The man holds a parrot with a red eye, green head, yellow breast with blue and red wing feathers. These mantles reflect the description of similar feathered capes worn by the Tupinamba tribe who inhabited the area where the Portuguese captain, Pedro Cabral, made landfall and the example sent back to Lisbon with the letter of 1st May 1500 to Don Manuel I.
With the restoration of Catholicism in England in 1553, Mary I commissioned the Cramp Ring manuscript that lays out the Good Friday service for the blessing of the cramp rings and the curing of the King’s Evil. It was thought the thaumaturgical touch of the monarch could cure this disease, the magical ability to ‘cure’ in this way being limited to English and French sovereigns.
On the second of the three full page illuminations Mary I places her magical hands on the neck of the sick person. Within the marginal decoration is a blue and gold macaw, birds native to the areas of South America discovered and claimed for Spain.
The illumination of this manuscript is credited to Simon Bening’s daughter, Levina Teerlinc, who replaced Lucas Horenbout as Henry VIII’s limner in 1546, Horenbout having died in March 1544. In the recent past Teerlinc’s work has been described as weak, but writing in 1561 the art historian Ludovico Guicciardini considered her as good an artist as her father. Guicciardini’s description of the Low Countries includes the names of various famous Flemish artists in the early part of the sixteenth century, including Simon Bening, and lists Teerlinc as the first of four women who are, in his opinion, worthy of mention, and being as good at the art of ‘miniare’ as her father.Teerlinc’s use of Renaissance motifs in the marginal decoration encompasses naturalistic elements seen in illuminated documents created by her father Simon, and grandfather, Alexander Bening, demonstrating her innovative style of illumination for the Marian court.
Similar to the early sixteenth century poems being considered as evidence for parrots being at the various courts of Brussels, England and Scotland, Teerlinc’s portrayal of this blue and gold macaw appears to be the only evidence found so far, for such a bird being present at the Marian court of the 1550s. Whether the macaw was a gift from her future husband, or a bird he brought with him when he arrived in England in the summer of 1554 remains a mystery.
In the summer of that year, Spanish Prince Philip, heir to the throne of Spain and all Hapsburg overseas territories, married his cousin Mary, queen of England. The presence of the blue and gold macaw is reminiscent of the African grey parrot talking to the king in the roundel of membrane 3 of the thirteenth century genealogy roll of the Heptarchy to Edward I of England. Not only does its presence reinforce Mary’s royal status, it is a visual reference to the overseas Spanish territorial possessions that will eventually come under the aegis of the king and queen of England when Prince Philip inherits the Spanish throne. Its presence may have other interpretations, such symbolising the renewal of the Catholic faith in England because of the belief that a parrot’s utterings were directly from God.
After Magellan circumnavigated the world in 1522 proving the world was not flat, both John III of Portugal and emperor Charles V claimed suzerainty over the Moluccan Islands. The Treaty of Zaragoza was signed in 1529 placing the islands under Portuguese domination where they remained until the beginning of the 17th century, giving Spain domination over the rest of the Pacific Ocean. By the end of the sixteenth century global exploration had brought much of the New World under Spanish rule or influence.
Flemish born Roelant de Savery, court artist to Emperor Rudolph II, recorded the various birds in the imperial menagerie in several paintings. Blue and gold as well as red macaws, and turkeys – all from the Spanish lands in the New World, in addition to birds from countries not yet under Spanish rule, are all accurately described in paint. What is missing in all of de Savery’s paintings of Rudolph II’s menagerie, are cockatoos and any other birds originating from areas under Portuguese domination as per the 1529 treaty.
Having spent twenty six years at the court of the Great Khan Marco Polo would have known where birds valued by eastern potentates came from, and on his return to Venice would have wanted to wreath this knowledge in secrecy in order to capitalise on it. On his death bed it is alleged he was pressed to confess that the stories of his adventures were not true in order to save his immortal soul, but is reputed to have told the priest he had described only a quarter of the marvels he had seen. It was not until nineteenth century that Alfred Russell Wallace observed the Wallace line separating the fauna of Asia and Australasia, previously noted by Polo as a place where “all things are different from ours.” At the end of the nineteenth century Wallace wrote about the various families of parrots distributed around the world and concluded that the two regions where parrots have flourished best are South America and Australasia.
Previously, the portrayal of angels wings with varying coloured feathers was considered merely artistic license, but archaeological has revealed there was a thriving market in the trade of exotic parrots from places from the Far East since before the time of Christ. Prior to the discovery of parrots in the New World, documentary evidence demonstrates that during the middle ages live parrots were imported to europe and owned by kings and wealthy aristocrats as symbols of status and power. These birds would have arrived in the various trading centres as either live, skinned, or stuffed specimens.
Some artists may have seen birds owned by their wealthy patrons. Others may have been inspired by hearing travellers’ tales of the wondrous varieties of different coloured parrots told by returning merchants, who had heard it from other merchants trading with the Venetian Republic, who in turn were obtaining their luxury goods from the major ports of Egypt and Palestine – a veritable case of chinese whispers resulting in inaccurate portrayals of rainbow lorikeets and budgerigars.
The portrayal of birds unique to islands east of the Wallace line proves Arab traders had a lucrative line in avian imports from that region via the maritime Silk Routes, many centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese and Spanish explorers of the late fifteenth century.
Note: This is one element of a much larger piece of research into the visual evidence of import of goods from the Far East in paintings, manuscripts and other works of art. (Text copyright MVT 2022).
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 My grateful thanks to Dr Jenny Stratford for her generous email informing me of Robert Buckman and his merchandise.
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 There are slight variations between the modern translations into English of Polo’s Travels by Cliff and Latham, but they both state the country as being “… different from ours.”
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 I Corinthios :13: 1-13.
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 Polo’s description clearly refers to red lorys.
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 Now in Uffizzi Gallery, Florence.
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 London BL Sloane 3049. (France 1480) ff. 2 and 13
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 Capes worn by the Tupi tribe living at Port Seguro are described in footnotes 3 and 4 on page 8 of the 1928 translation of Caminha’s letter to Don Manuel of 1st May 1500 and written by the translator from his own research regarding the Tupinamba people.
 Now known to be a form of tuberculosis of the lymph nodes.
 Bologna University; L. Guicciardini; Descrittione di M. Lodouico Guicciardini Patritio Fiorentino, di tutti I Paesi Bassi;(1561) 97-100. http://amshistorica.unibo.it/archivio/000185/000001.jpg [2016-2022]
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