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…
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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’.)
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.)
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.
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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