From whimsical 19th century Japanese drawings to 4,000-year-old Mongolian rock art, Dutch chess pieces and Qajar tableware from Iran, the history of man’s relation to the falcon is one of the oldest recorded love stories.
It is even carried in your pocket, on the country’s currency.
A research project by New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) aims to bring the ubiquity of falconry imagery and its globalism to the fore with the Falconry Research Project, a database of global falconry imagery through the centuries.
Falconry is ubiquitous in art through the centuries and the keen-eyed will find traces of it everywhere, from raptors prominently painted on the arm of kings but to a hunting scene embroidered on dresses. This database presents a different narrative, reframing the narrative with the falcon at the centre.
“If we analyze this work of art through the prism of falconry, very often it changes all the meaning of the entire work of art,” said Anne-Lise Tropato, the project’s research coordinator.
Ms Tropato is the architect behind the database of falconry imagery, working on its interface design. That is, she must choose key terms and themes that relate to its academics and falconers regardless of their background. Like the collection at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the database reinforces the shared experience of humanity by grouping art by theme instead of geography or chronology.
For instance, users can search by the type of flight, the species, equipment, the moment of the hunt or even disease.
Now in its first stage, researchers are scanning and collecting existing images of falconry museums and inviting private collectors to step forward.
Themes are already emerging, such as the falcon’s symbolism for youth, love and death. Centre to this is man’s relationship with the majestic predator. Falcons can be tamed but never owned. They are known to disappear on hunts, flying away forever.
In one image of the popular 13th century tale, the Three Living and the Three Dead, youth on a falconry trip are reminded that they shall one day meet the fate of three skeletons before them. “It’s kind of a criticism of worldly glories,” says Ms Tropato. “The falcon is a symbol of the worldly high status and everything that can be considered vain compared to spiritual life.”
The project is led by NYUAD’s vice provost for intellectual and cultural outreach, Reindert Falkenburg and was presented this week at a lecture series hosted by NYU-AD the fourth International Festival of Falconry. Ms Tropato presented her works as the final speaker, wrapping up talks by art historians, falconers, archaeologists and historians that showed that falconry is, indeed, universal in representation.
Dr Ulambayar Erdenebat, an archaeologist from the National University of Mongolia, took people back four thousand years to the rock art of the Mongol Altai, where images of predatory birds hunting together, a practice not done by wild predatory birds, are carved onto stone.
Karl-Heinz Gersmann presented images from the 19th century book Ehon Taka Kagami, with cartoon-like images of a man fanning his sparrowhawk in a room covered with leaves and a man warming his wet hawk over a basket of charcoal.
Prof Baudouin Van den Abeele, a historian from Belgium’s Université Catholique de Louvain, shared the challenges faced by medieval Italian artists who had to illustrate a Latin book on falconry. Directions in Italian are scribbled on the edges for the illustrators unsure on how to draw the proscribed cure for a bird’s indigestion.
Yannis Hadjinicolaou, a research fellow in the humanities at NYUAD, brought it closer to home with the Dh100 note, which depicts a falcon peering towards the World Trade centre.
“The traditional falcon merges with the technological innovation high rise as a living and symbolic capital of the country since the falcon is looking in the direction of the modern building,” he told the audience. “These functional buildings were emerging in the late 70s and 80s and underlying on the one hand the modernity of the country without neglecting the cultivation of falconry on the other.
“Images do not simply illustrate linguistic issues and meanings. They are complex entities and help us think about or even motivate our perception of the world.”