Surely He shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler; and from the noisome pestilence.
He shall cover thee with his feathers and under His wings you will find refuge.
-Psalm 91, verses 3 – 4
Papageno, the clown from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, is the spirit of the opera’s character. He manifests playfulness and innocence. Papageno decides to release all his captive friends and opens the golden cages.
The birds surround him, perching on him like a tree. Nature in the form of many kinds of exotic and beautiful birds, is drawn to the clown. His colorful suit is an assemblage of feathers, bestowed on him by his friends, the birds. With his outstretched arms, he is poised like a tightrope walker, or perhaps a person inspired by the choreographed flight of birds – ready to make his own flight.
About Mozart’s THE MAGIC FLUTE
In Mozart’s grand work, Papageno is a fowler, a catcher of birds, who shares his bounty with the Queen of the Night. Papageno is dressed as a bird, covered in feathers from head to toe. The song he plays on his pipes summons the birds, making his job as a bird catcher an easy one. Papageno is comically flawed in THE MAGIC FLUTE. He tells lies to appear braver and stronger and consequently is briefly punished by having his mouth closed with a golden padlock. As a companion and comedic foil to the hero, Papageno joins Prince Tamino in his quest to rescue the captive princess Pamina from the powerful King Sarastro. Papageno displays a parody of human weakness in marked contrast with the nobility and heroism of Tamino. Mozart shows us our mirror in Papageno. We laugh at his vanity for showing off his elaborate costume flourished with bright feathers. We laugh at his clumsy attempts to fool the audience with his bravery and abilities. He shows us our own humanity – our frailties, the aspects we don’t like to acknowledge – so as we laugh we recognize ourselves.
In Swanson’s depiction of Papageno, this avian hunter is more of a friend to the birds than a captor. The cages are open. Papageno with his uncaged flock is an allegory: the birds are free, yet they choose to remain close to the clown, swirling joyfully and perching upon his arms.
A clown’s character is drawn from story and myth. Armed with images from the collective unconscious, they bring more to the story than merely the character they portray. These are beings of magic possessing the power to transform the ordinary into the unusual. They are imbued with symbolic power, the ability to convey truths and meaning to the human heart in a way that bypasses the critical intellect.
Papageno and St. Francis of Assisi
John August Swanson’s PAPAGENO owes as much to the stories of Saint Francis as to Mozart’s opera. Saint Francis heard the joyful singing of birds while he was heavy of heart; interrupting his morning prayers, he approached the birds with another friar. Rather than fly away, the birds gathered close. He asked them to be quiet so the men could complete their prayers and the birds complied, singing again only after the two men finished praying. Francis recognized the bond humans share with nature, all the handiwork of a Creator.
On another occasion, in Spoleto, Francis decided to preach to the birds. “My brethren the birds”, Francis said, “you ought to greatly praise your creator and always to love Him, who has given feathers to clothe you and all else that you need. God has made you the most noble of creatures. He has given you the air as a dwelling-place; and although you neither sow nor reap, He protects and guides you so that you lack nothing.”
“Because he possessed nothing, he was possessed by all the free creatures of God. All of creation loved him, every bird and animal, and Francis knew it and loved them in return.”
-Murray Bodo,OFM, Francis, The Journey and the Dream, 1972
Further Reflections on Papageno the Serigraph
While based on his 1986 watercolor painting of PAPAGENO, the serigraph more fully realizes the artist’s vision. The pointillist techniques Swanson continued to develop in the years between the artworks, are utilized to great effect. Swanson began printing the serigraph in August, 2008. The serigraph was developed in 31 color printings, each stencil hand-drawn by the artist. The final color was printed in November, 2008. “
Symbolism of Birds
Birds appearing in dreams are often viewed as symbols of freedom. They may also represent thoughts, imagination and ideas that, by nature, require freedom to manifest. In ancient times, birds were believed to be vehicles for the soul possessing the ability to carry the spirit to heaven.
Clowns cross borders between the earthly realm and the imagination, just as birds do, at home in the air as they are on the ground. A caged bird may suggest restraint, but birds flying free represent our desires and aspirations – the possibility of the soul soaring into the divine.