Goldfinch boys

Francesco Maria Sforza (‘Il Duchetto’), by Marco d’Oggiono (d 1530). Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Most days a flock of goldfinches come to our birdfeeder, close to the kitchen window. Unlike the blue tits, who are snatch-and-flee artists, they are happy to keep on patiently snaffling sunflower seeds. They are a joy to behold, a flash of colour with their red masks and their black and yellow gold wing markings contrasting with beige bodies.

In German the bird is known as a distelfink or ‘thistle-finch’ as it is partial to thistle seeds and teazels. Presumably because of this association with prickly plants the goldfinch is symbolic of Christ’s Passion, especially recalling the crown of thorns.

At present the bird appears in news items because of the recent movie adaptation of Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, itself based on a famous painting. This is just one of many good reasons to discuss the songster’s appearance in a miniature portrait, one I usually make a point of viewing in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

The Renaissance oil painting is of the young Italian noble Francesco Maria Sforza (1491–1512), also known as Il Duchetto or ‘the Little Duke’. This small-scale image shows the Count of Pavia holding the legs of a goldfinch, which appears to be attempting to escape. Attired in bright clothing, il duchetto‘s right hand rests on a richly patterned weave, a half-hearted attempt at trompe-l’oeil by the presumed artist Marco d’Oggiono.

There is no overt or even covert Christian symbolism here; instead, in secular images the goldfinch is said to stand for endurance, even fruitfulness. Certainly the bird’s ability to continue feeding in close proximity to observers may underline its reputation for persistence.

It’s interesting to compare this portrait with Agnolo Bronzino’s Giovanni de’ Medici as a Child, which I’ve seen in the Pitti Palace, Florence and admired for the exuberance of its subject. Here is another young nobleman (1544–1562) — who, incidentally, became a sober-faced cardinal before dying of TB in his early twenties — displaying a goldfinch to our gaze. Young Giovanni de’ Medici holds his bird close to his chest; the red face of Carduelis carduelis is matched by the toddler’s clothing which, perhaps deliberately, anticipates his eventual assumption of the red robes of a cardinal. (You will have already noted that Francesco has a red-breasted doublet.)

Now there’s been a recent flurry of people on social media posting photos of portrait paintings depicting individuals accompanied by animals, occasionally pets. It’s all been in the wake of the current broadcasts of the first series of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. You may recall that humans in the author’s alternative world all have animal counterparts called daemons. It’d be a nice — if heretical — thought that Francesco’s and Giovanni’s goldfinches were in fact their very own daemons…

* * * * *

Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch (he carefully adds the date 1654, made to look as through it’s scratched on plaster) is famously the artwork which forms the focus of Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel. The poor creature, which should be flying free, has been cruelly attached by a fine chain to its perch, as many such captive songbirds were. Here its explicit purpose is to draw water from a bowl with a miniature bucket, as though from a well, as the Dutch title Het Puttertje makes clear. (Waterput, literally a water-pit, means ‘well’, and putter means, I think, both ‘drawer of water’ and ‘goldfinch’; the addition of – tje, a diminutive suffix, suggests ‘little drawer of water’.)

The Goldfinch (1654) by Carel Fabritius

Whether Fabritius intended this painting to be symbolic or not I have no idea. However, this was certainly the case with religious art, as in Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch (painted 1505–6). Also known as the Madonna del Cardellino, the image shows Mary with the infant Jesus and John the Baptist. St John is handing over a goldfinch to his cousin as a portent of the Passion to come. (Note, too, that Mary wears a red robe under her trademark blue outer garment.)

Raphael’s Madonna del Cardellino (1504-5)

As well as the bird’s affinity for teazels and thistles being references to the Crown of Thorns there is a further layer of symbolism. You may remember the legend that the donkey sports a cross-shaped marking on its back because it carried Jesus into Jerusalem, a reminder of the crucifixion to come. In a similar vein the goldfinch is said to have a red face under its black and white cap because it tried to remove a prickle from the crown of thorns as Christ hung from the cross: a drop of Jesus’s blood then splashed on and stained its head, as a reminder to future generations.

* * * * *

There is such a lot to consider in such paintings: one could talk a lot about the sitter’s direction of gaze, the colour palette, the formal composition or what we can read into the figures’ expressions.

But I always return to the poor wild animal clutched in a podgy palm or tied to a perch: how must it feel being subjected so cruelly to the casual whims of the so-called masters of creation?


Another in my series of occasional posts featuring artworks in Bristol’s Museum and Art Gallery — you can view more here

34 thoughts on “Goldfinch boys

  1. I do love a bit of art theory, picking apart the hidden symbols in a painting. The Renaissance artists were particularly strong on that, weren’t they? What a lovely theme to base your analysis on, those little flashes of red and yellow, the humble goldfinch. There are goldfinches round here, but despite growing teasels in the front garden this year, I couldn’t lure any in. Maybe next year. Great post Chris

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you liked my “picking apart,” Lynn! Many Renaissance paintings are about story, aren’t they, where more modern portraits and, particularly, abstracts are often there for themselves, art for art’s sake as the phrase has it.

      Why, apart from a penchant for sunflower seeds, so many goldfinches are happy to visit us I have no idea, as we have neither thistles nor teasels in our garden. Whatever the reason they bring a periodic touch of harlequinade which we find very cheering. 😊

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I love them, love listening to them sing. I love any feathered visitors – even the wood pigeons and the quarrelling magpies! But to tempt the goldfinches in would really make me smile. Too many bloody cats round here, probably – scares the poor things away

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Our feeder is quite high off the ground, and we put a squirrel baffle up to deter the rats. To be honest our cat totally ignored them — she even ignored a fat rat that waddled past her when we lived in Pembrokeshire, however…

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I have a bird feeder on the window but have just had to replace it as the brackets mysteriously snapped, no doubt because one of the local cats made a lunge for the poor old sparrows. Not a cat fan

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Our cat was recently put to sleep from old age and disease, and while we miss her it’s been quite liberating, a bit like kids getting a job, accommodation, and their own life!

              Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever spotted goldfinches here in Texas. I’ve surely enjoyed reading your post, as always. And the comments too.

    I too feel sad when I look at the painting of the tied up Goldfinch. And those chunky infants, even though they are cute, they also seem to be holding and handling them in a very rough way.

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    1. As I understand it, Silvia, the American goldfinch (which can appear almost canary yellow, but with a black forehead and wing feathers) is either unrelated or only distantly related to the European goldfinch, though it’s definitely also a finch which enjoys thistles and sunflowers. According to the Wikipedia entry its wintering range does include Texas.

      I agree about the cruelty aspect of caged and chained wild birds. It’s still common in southern Europe, as you probably know, but there does seem to be a slow easing of the practice.

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      1. Oh, yes, I forgot. We see finches, maybe not goldfinches, and that’s why I forgot that yes, I have seen some before.

        Unfortunately, that cruelty is very common in Europe, yes, southern Europe as you say.

        Liked by 1 person

            1. You had told me, Silvia, but I’d forgotten that when I wrote the comment, and so hope it didn’t come over as deliberately insensitive or offensive. From a holiday many years ago in Malta I can vouch that many Maltese are friendly, but of course in every culture there will be aspects that seem illogical or needless to outsiders. I don’t doubt that there is much in British culture currently that is incomprehensible, even bloodyminded, and I wouldn’t disagree!

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            2. Not at all. I won’t give details, but I have witnessed this problem first hand.

              I know that you are ever so fair and aware of cultural problems or biases, so, whenever you make an assertion like this, I know you don’t make it lightly. Actually I am very fond of your approach to writing, you know I am your fan, Chris.

              I treasure the conversation and even debate you promote.

              Please, keep writing about anything you need to write about.

              I just chimed in to say that you were spot on and that hopefully, their mentality will change and get more in tune with the civilized and less atavic relationship towards animals they have, birds in particular.

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            3. There’s another topic, related but not quite. It’s hunting. Hunting is not that cruel practice of killing birds in mass, or caging them in poor conditions. I’m talking about my sister, in Spain, living in the city in a country were hunting is very isolated practice of a few, more extensive in South Spain, and much unheard of in her circle. She reacted to some news by the Spanish government, where they announced that, at a protected park in South Spain, were some hunting is permitted with licenses, of course, at certain times, and where they run studies of their animal population as to know what can be hunted, etc., the government was going to provide some hunting sessions for some students who wanted to participate. She wrote, “going backwards”.

              I live in Texas, where many of my friends’s husbands are hunters extraordinaire. They are engineers, businessman, etc., nothing ignorant nor backwards in their lives, and they and their sons, relish their weekends in nature fishing and hunting. It’s a culture. I don’t think anyone can reconcile all this, because it’s part of a mindset, culture, even in our DNA, to hold those different positions.

              But this is an off tangent, because what you wrote about, was something unjustifiable that needs to change.

              Liked by 1 person

            4. I didn’t dare mention hunting: as far as I can see much of it is (in the words of Oscar Wilde) “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable”; even when it supposedly results in kill that can be eaten I do find the stalking and glorification of slaughter unedifying. Even worse, if that’s possible, is rich individuals going abroad on safari, killing big game (including baby elephants and giraffes) for so-called sport. The photos of overweight white hunters astride the carcass of a magnificent lion or majestic rhino to me is both distressing and dark sickening.

              Here’s the thing: if it’s culture then it’s possible for attitudes and practices to evolve. But it does require a sea change in public opinion for casual hunting to be seen as reprehensible, and that will be an epic uphill struggle.

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  3. I hate the idea of chained or caged birds – it seems so contrary to what we love about them. Actually you’ve just reminded me that I hate humanity. Or maybe I’ve just been reading too much Steinbeck. I shall swiftly find something joyous to read and restore my joie de vivre. Great post – I enjoyed these paintings considerably more than looking at real captured birds, though I really do not think that unfortunate child in the red romper suit would have looked so happy if he’d seen himself in a mirror… 😉

    Signed: Philistine

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    1. They start as they mean to carry on, as befits their station in life: “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine,” and “These hands were made for grasping, and that’s what they’re gonna do…”

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  4. I am really enjoying your posts about art! I’ve only ever looked briefly at symbolic references in art before. Like cryptic crosswords, many of these symbols don’t have a lot of meaning to me until someone points them out or I read about them. I wonder if this kind of symbolism in art is analogous to literary symbolism? These visual references feel to me a little bit like riddles or poetry but are crafted in the visual realm. Very interesting – many thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m a great believer, Jo, in analogues between pictorial art, literature, dance, drama, film and music, all of them being creative expressions even though in different mediums. So symbolism will be just one component (though not always present) of any of these works of art, to go with emotion, narrative, structure, tone or whatever. So what I’m saying is that I agree with you on this!

      I’m glad you’re enjoying these explorations: next up is … Banksy! (He also happens to be from the city I lived in for over 45 years, unlike some of these more far-flung artists that have featured so far.)

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