Friday, April 24, 2015


European goldfinch
As the goldfinches return to the area in their full glory, this is a good topic for Spring in the Northwest. There is a tradition of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance Periods of featuring a GOLDFINCH  in paintings of the Madonna and the Christ Child.

American goldfinch
Before I continue I must mention that there is quite a difference between our American goldfinch and the European species, as seen in these photos.

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)
All members of the finch family are seed eaters, and goldfinches eat mainly thistle seed. Thistles, having thorns, had a symbolic association with the crucifixion, being symbolic of the thorns in Jesus' crown at the time of His death. Because it symbolized the Passion, the goldfinch was considered a "savior" bird and was sometimes pictured with the common fly (which represented sin and disease).

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
What did the colors of the goldfinch represent? First, there was the bar of gold across the bird’s wings, a color which, since the ancient Greeks, had been associated with the ability to cure sickness.  Then there was the splash of red on the cheeks, which like the robin’s red breast, was a sign to medieval Christians that the bird had acquired blood-colored feathers while attempting to remove the crown of thorns from while Christ was being crucified.

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
So we have not only the bird as a symbol of Jesus death, suffering and Resurrection but also a symbol that the goldfinch stood for  recovery from illness, and the raising up of a person out of their sick-bed- another kind of symbolic Resurrection.

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

1 comment:

  1. Mother Hildegard I was looking for an image of a Goldfinch to paint and came across the beautiful image you have on your blog. I was wondering if you could give me permission to use the image as a reference image. I am. It selling my work as I am only practicing. Kind regards Harry