The Concert of Birds1629 - 1630. Oil on canvas, 98 x 137 cm.
In the composition, an owl on a branch directs a chorus of fifteen other types of birds while holding a score between its feet. Such images of different species of birds perched on tree trunks, sometimes with musical scores, were known as Concerts of birds and were popularized by Flemish artists in the early decades of the 17th century, especially Frans Snyders. They were quite common at that time, and the I Marquis of Leganés, don Diego Messía Felípez de Guzmán, had as may as four in his collection, two of which are now at the Museo del Prado, both by Snyders (P01758 and P01761). Two others also entered the Museo del Prado: one by Snyders (P07160) and the other by his disciple, Jan Fyt (P01534). During the first half of the 17th century, few collectors in Madrid had works by Snyders, but they became more common in the second half of the century, when they hung in houses and palaces around the city (including the homes of the Admiral of Castile and don Luis Méndez de Haro). This subject actually antedates the baroque custom of aviaries; it began in the Middle Ages and Snyders was not the first to explore it in paintings, as there were numerous representations of Aeolus with the Birds in the final years of the 16th century. Northern European collectors used these works as decorations above doors or windows, or in front of fireplaces, and the fashion later spread to Spain. Their symbolic significance is linked to representations of Franciscan birds associated with the worship of the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of the Birds, which began in 13th century. Legend has it that birds flocked to a beech grove outside Brussels, drawn by an image of the Virgin resting among the tree branches. As a result, that city, which is the capital of Flanders, had a Franciscan chapel with this avocation. It was destroyed by the Iconoclasts in the 16th century but rebuilt at the end of that same century, with birdcages hanging from the ceiling so that their inhabitants could contribute to the temple’s particular liturgy with their song. This affinity has often been mentioned in relation the Snyders’ desire to be buried in a Franciscan habit. The Concerts of Birds have also been considered allusions to the sense of hearing, although that interpretation is unclear. Other readings allude to the possibility that they represent wisdom via the owl -in Western painting, owls frequently symbolize that concept- who sometimes seems to be directing those bucolic concerts. Moreover, these concerts of birds symbolically refer to concerted order in nature, a sense of balance with nature embodied by the musical systematization of birdsong. Thus, in general, their meaning involves the political and social order enjoyed by the owners of these paintings under the rule of Archduke Albert of Austria and Isabel Clara Eugenia. That explains their popularity in bourgeois and aristocratic homes, from whence they entered the leading museums. The subject was much exploited by Snyders’ followers, both in Flanders and France. In the Spanish Netherlands, these included Paul de Vos, Jan Fyt and Jan Van Kessel and in the Dutch Republic the subject was revised by artists such as Gysbert, Melchior d’Hondecoeter, Abraham Bisschot and Jacobus Victors to make it more courtly. In France, it was explored by Nicasius Bernaerts and Pieter Boel. Here, as in many of Frans Snyders’ compositions, the largest birds at the ends protect the smaller ones. Some of the species are foreign to Europe, including the Raggi Bird of Paradise, from New Guinea and Australia, or the Blue-fronted Amazon from South America. Other species identified in this work include the Hoopoe, the Eurasian Jay, the Bohemian Waxwing and the Eurasian Bullfinch, among others. As to the score held by the owl: some fragments of the titles of the voices are legible and appear to be written in French, although neither the composer nor the work have been identified. It appears to be a four-voice composition, possibly a French song. The music and lyrics are written in what appears to be a notebook with four voice parts (Text drawn from: Pérez Preciado, J. J.: Arte y Diplomacia de la Monarquía Hispánica en el siglo XVII, 2003. pp. 281-285).