So what was it about the goldfinch that warranted its inclusion in these paintings? The answer lies in the bird’s plumage and lifestyle, which had produced in the medieval mind powerful symbolic associations. What mattered for the artists was not ornithological accuracy but the bird’s symbolic or allegorical meaning. When depicted with Our Lord as a Child, the goldfinch associated the Incarnation with the Passion.
|Paolo Veronese (+1588)|
|Joos van Cleve (+1540)|
Through its association with thistles, the goldfinch came to be seen as a good-luck charm, ‘warding off contagion and bestowing symbolic health both upon those who viewed it and upon the person who owned it’. Thus the goldfinch came to be a symbol of endurance, and in the case of paintings of the Madonna and Child, this symbolism was an allegory of the salvation Christ would bring through his sacrifice.
|Giovanni Tiepolo (+1770) Detail|
|Lorenzo Veneziano (+1372)|
Since the early medieval period, the finch was thought to have the gift of healing sight. It was said that a finch could cure a person’s disease just by looking at him or her. The artists gave us Christ with a symbol not only of his eventual suffering and sacrifice, but also the healing power, presented in both physical and spiritual terms, of that sacrifice.
|Guercino- early 1600s|
It is estimated that nearly 500 paintings in this period included the goldfinch, which often occupied a central place in the composition, perched on the Virgin Mary’s fingers or nestled in Christ’s hands.
The goldfinch paintings were attributed to 254 artists, 214 of them Italian.
Some of the most famous artists to make use of the theme were Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Zurbarán, and Tiepolo. One of my favorites is Guercino's "Madonna and Child with Escaped Goldfinch". I can find no explanation of the artist's deviation from the tradition of Madonna or Child holding the bird. Is the escape to represent the finch's relieving Christ of the sufferings to come, a sign of His Resurrection or relief of our own sufferings? In a16th C. German painting we see the goldfinches sitting on the fence behind the Madonna and Child. Another interesting, but rare setting for the bird.
|Vittore Crivelli (+1502)|
|16th C. German|
As seen by the paintings below, all 21 C., the theme has not died out, though is much less common today. However, this bird is a good reminder to us of endurance, fruitfulness, and persistence, and in the end, hope of life eternal.
|Brian Whalen- 21 C. English|
|Fr. John Guiliani- USA|