Fortunately, feathered hats are long out of fashion (though Hanson's book includes a disturbing interview with one designer, Leah Chalfen, who's determined to bring the cruel practice back). But I was partly inspired by Chapman when I decided to birdwatch in another unlikely spot the other day: among the painted Italian altarpieces in the National Gallery's excellent free exhibition, Devotion by Design.
My final list was:
- Two swallows, found in Carlo Crivelli's Madonna of the Swallow, painted at the turn of the 16th century. One of these perches on top of the Madonna's throne; the other surveys the martyrdom of St Sebastian in the predella. The saint, unusually, also appears fit and unpierced in the main panel.
- One Eurasian Crane, also in the predella of Crivelli's altarpiece, in the scene depicting St Jerome in the wilderness. This scene also contains several other animals, including a couple of bunnies.
- Goldfinch and Coal Tit, on the marble steps at the foot of the Virgin's throne in Benozzo Gozzoli's Virgin and Child Enthroned Among Angels and Saints, painted in 1461. They look quite alert and seem to be getting along.
- An eagle, in Margarito of Arezzo's The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Narrative Scenes, from around 1260. It appears here as a symbol of John the Evangelist, so it may not really count.
- Doves in various paintings, representing the Holy Spirit. These may not count either.
Although I started out looking for birds, I also have to mention fish -- specifically those in Niccolò di Pietro Gerini's Baptism Altarpiece from 1387. They swim unconcernedly in the clear water around Christ's feet. This must have been an imaginative touch on Gerini's part; an altarpiece by Lorenzo Monaco, painted in the same year and depicting the same subject, shows the water as empty.
The Gallery's exhibition is very well put together, and even allows visitors to walk behind some of the altarpieces to see how they were built. I'll probably go again before it closes in October.