An art historian, P.C., who wishes to remain anonymous, has uncovered a plot deeper and more fascinating than any work of fiction by Dan Brown: that of the Order of the Two Magpies.
It is a tale of intrigue and mystery to which the only clues are to be found in art, in a vast collection of paintings dating back to the 15th century.
The existence of the Order of the Two Magpies was unknown to most of the world for many centuries, but on 3 June 2010, P.C. discovered an anomaly in a number of paintings exhibited at the National Gallery, London: there appeared to be a motif common to art of different eras, namely a constant depiction of two birds, generally resembling magpies. Their significance, at first deemed to be a mere coincidence, soon led to the unraveling of the greatest mystery known to man.
Clues left behind by Rubens
It was the examination of several paintings by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens that piqued P.C.’s interest: in A Shepherd with his Flock in a Woody Landscape (link to the painting’s page on the National Gallery’s website), in The Watering Place (link) and in A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (link), Rubens includes two birds flying together. While the birds may appear to be of different species according to the painting, it was a sufficiently puzzling inclusion to intrigue the art historian.
Pursuing the search
After this discovery, the mystery increased as P.C. examined other paintings in the National Gallery.
Thus, the two birds could also be found in the painting Tobias and the Archangel Raphael (link – author unknown, said to be based on a composition by Adam Elsheimer).
Furthermore, there are two such birds in Saint Catherine of Alexandria with a Donor (link), a much earlier work, by Bernardino di Betto, otherwise known as Pintoricchio.
[Other paintings portraying the two birds have been omitted from this list due to lack of notes on them]
A number of other works include more than two birds, but feature two of them more prominently.
Thus, in A Castle on a Hill by a River by a Dutch imitator of Jacob van Ruisdael (link), four birds are visible in the sky, though two of them fly together. The same is true of A Deerhound with Dead Game and Implements of the Chase by Jan Weenix (link) and of The Watering Place by Thomas Gainsborough, which echoes the painting by Rubens (link).
In A Boy holding a Grey Horse, attributed to Abraham van Calraet (link), two birds are flying together, with four other birds in the distance. A similar pattern can be found in A Herdsman with Seven Cows by a River, by an imitator of Aelbert Cuyp (link), and in A Scene on the Ice, by Andries Vermeulen (link).
Understanding the clues
Are the two birds significant? Most sceptics would dismiss such a claim. Indeed, it may be mere coincidence, as such sceptics would have us believe.
There is, however, one fact that the sceptics do not take into account. As cultural critic N.B. stressed, “it is so crazy an idea that it might be true”.
If we approach the mystery from this angle, more questions ensue, but none are without an answer:
- Why did the painters leave clues?
Much like any secret organisation, many members of the Order of the Two Magpies felt pride in being part of this exclusive group. We may presume that a debate followed Pintoricchio’s depiction of the two birds, if this is indeed the first such depiction, with the possible result that only obscure references were tolerated. Such a result is likely, as Pintoricchio’s popularity did not falter after Saint Catherine of Alexandria with a Donor was made; rather, it grew as Pintoricchio was summoned to work in the Vatican.
- When was the Order of the Two Magpies founded?
Current findings do not provide a definite answer to this question, but the lack of known depictions of the two birds suggests that Pintoricchio was among the earliest members. Further research is required to ascertain the truth of this assumption.
- What was the purpose of the Order of the Two Magpies?
The most fundamental question that P.C. faced was that of the purpose of said Order.
After examining the paintings depicting the two birds, P.C. stumbled upon Raphael’s painting entitled The Mond Crucifixion (The Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints and Angels, named “Mond Crucifixion” after its former owner – link), which shows two angels in the air around the crucified Christ, holding chalices to gather Christ’s blood.
Could this be relevant? This work was made after Pintoricchio’s Saint Catherine, and when putting the two together, P.C. made an astonishing discovery: P.C.’s findings suggest that the Order of the Two Magpies held the key to one of the greatest mysteries of our existence, namely how we humans came to exist.
Indeed, the following reinterpretation puts our entire existence into perspective: in Raphael’s painting, the two angels behave like magpies and take life (blood) from a dying divinity. The angels/magpies are analogies for we, as humans, as Adam and Eve, who came to consciousness only by taking from our superior guardians.
P.C. notes that this theory was coincidentally embodied in a recent work of great cultural value, the tale of Ezio Auditore da Firenze and Desmond Miles, Assassin’s Creed II. That work, however, is slightly more violent than P.C.’s theory.
Disclaimer: the author of this article does not believe a single word of P.C.’s theory. This was merely an aftermath of the examination period.