Hilary Hope Guise, professor of art history, Florida State University, lecturer and artist

Monday 23–Tuesday 24 January

1.00 pm


The first lecture will discuss the symbolism of birds, in particular the white and the black bird. The flight of a white bird has always been associated with the human soul and spirit, and often represented the moment when a soul leaves the human body and ‘takes flight’. We find images of birds in different contexts in art from ancient Egypt and Greece through to surrealism. In the Homeric world the flight of birds could be a source of augury with birds appearing on warriors’ shields, indicating their belief in their own victory. In the Christian world the white bird represented one aspect of the Trinity. In Greek mythology Aphrodite is accompanied by two white doves. The aspect of love in the image of the white bird is both pagan and Christian. The black bird also has a long history and is related to the white bird; this dichotomy is resolved fully in one of the myths of Apollo.

The second lecture will look at how an ancient symbol of divine life in the parched deserts of the pre-Roman Near East moved West and became one of the defining images of the new Judeo-Christian faith in Imperial Rome. It will reveal how the fish, identified for centuries with pre-Jewish gods and goddesses, and also used as a common source of food grown in seawater ponds by the Romans, turned into a powerful sign of salvation against a backdrop of persecution and illiteracy in Rome. The early Christians become real to us as we explore the urgent and rough wall paintings made hastily by the flickering light of oil lamps.

Lecture titles

1. The flight of the white bird

2. The sign of the fish