The peacock is said by the Chinese to be the earthly form of the legendary heavenly bird, the phoenix. It is the embodiment of civilization and culture, representing nobility and power as well as being an auspicious sign and being synonymous with beauty.
As a result of the respect afforded to these birds, peacocks have featured prominently as the subject matter for many Chinese paintings since the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
One particularly celebrated painter of peacocks was Guiseppe Castiglione (1688-1766). Castiglione was born in Milan where he initially studied painting under the renowned painter Carlo Cornara (1605-1673). In 1709, the young Castiglione became a Jesuit, and in 1715 he travelled to China as a missionary, eventually settling at the Qing court where he became court painter for the Emperor Qianlong. Castiglione is also known by his Chinese name, Lang Shining, which he adopted while in China. He not only had a good eye for painting, but also was a skilled architect and was responsible for designing several western-style palaces in the Old Summer Palace. Having spent most of his life in China, he died in Beijing in 1766.
The work featuring peacocks for which Castiglione is particularly well-known is entitled “Peacocks” and shows two peacocks, one spreading its huge plumage, the other moving in front while it stares at this striking exhibition. The intricately painted birds are pictured in a garden. The colours of the original painting are rich and striking, particularly the blue used for the bodies of the peacocks and the eyes on the plumage. This is in stark contrast to the paler background and surrounding garden.
A small section of this originally huge painting is the exclusive focus of a series of nine commemorative coins celebrating ancient Chinese paintings of peacocks, eight of which were issued in 1993 and one in 1997.