Rubens and the bird of paradise. Painting natural knowledge in the early seventeenth century


  • I would like to thank Katy Barrett, Florike Egmond, Peter Mason, Jean-Michel Massing, Elizabeth McGrath, Simon Schaffer and two anonymous reviewers for their comments, and the Naturalezas figuradas (HAR2010-15099) research project, the Cabinet of Natural History seminar and the Basque Government Research Program for their support.


This paper explores the interconnections between early modern natural history and European visual culture by focusing on the representation of a single motif, the bird of paradise, in one of Peter Paul Rubens's most celebrated paintings: the Adoration of the Magi (1609; 1628–29), now in the collection of the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Portrayed as an aigrette in the Black Magus's headwear, the bird of paradise is interpreted as a symbol of exoticism and geographical diversity, in a painting of unmistakable Counter-Reformist facture, produced in a context of tense religious and political disputes and conflicting commercial interests. By considering the representation of this motif in the Prado Adoration as well as in other works by Rubens and his contemporaries, this paper studies the contribution of artists and paintings to the dissemination of natural knowledge, and examines early modern visual culture as part of a wider context shaped by religiosity, political interests, the cult of the exotic and global trade.