Yesterday I wrote about the connection between Donna Tartt’s new novel and the 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch. That set me thinking about why Fabritius had chosen the bird as a subject for a painting, so I thought I’d consult the book I received as a birthday present recently: Birds and People by Mark Cocker.
What I found there proved to be fascinating. In a sense, Carel Fabritius was following a well-established tradition of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance of featuring a goldfinch in paintings, especially images of the Madonna and holy child. What mattered for these artists was not the accuracy of natural history but the bird’s symbolic or allegorical meaning. Cocker reckons that close on 500 paintings in this period included the goldfinch motif. In the case of the Madonna images, the bird often occupied a central place in the composition, perched on Mary’s fingers or nestled in Christ’s hands.
Detail from Taddeo di Bartolo’s ‘Virgin and Child’,14th century
‘Virgin and Child’, Florence, 14th century.
So what was it about the goldfinch that warranted its inclusion in hundreds of paintings? The answer lies in the bird’s plumage and lifestyle, which had produced in the medieval mind powerful symbolic associations. Cocker quotes the scholar Herbert Friedmann who wrote in The Symbolic Goldfinch (1946) of the ‘ceaseless sweep of allegory through men’s minds. They felt and thought and dreamed in allegories’.
Detail from ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymous Bosch, c1510: rampant allegory featuring an outsize goldfinch.
What did the individual feel, then, when they saw an image of a goldfinch? First, there was the bar of gold across the bird’s wings, a colour which, since the ancient Greeks, had been associated with the ability to cure sickness. Then there was the splash of red on the cheeks: as with the robin’s red breast this was a sign to medieval Christians that the bird had acquired blood-coloured feathers while attempting to remove the crown of thorns from while Christ was being crucified.
Finally, not only did thistles have a symbolic association with the crucifixion: thistle seeds are the staple food of the European goldfinch, and thistles were themselves regarded as curative (long credited, for example, as a medicinal ingredient to combat the plague).
John Clare, always observant of bird behaviour, noted the goldfinch’s preference for thistles in his poem, ‘The Redcap’ (an old country name for the bird):
The redcap is a painted bird
and beautiful its feathers are;
In early spring its voice is heard
While searching thistles brown and bare;
It makes a nest of mosses grey
And lines it round with thistle-down;
Five small pale spotted eggs they lay
In places never far from town
(Indeed, goldfinches often come to our bird table here in Liverpool.)
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 transferred to the Christ child, an allegory of the salvation Christ would bring through his sacrifice.
Carlo Crivelli, ‘Madonna and Child’, 1480
In the Venetian artist Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna and Child, apples and a phallic and misshapen cucumber symbolise sin and a fly evil; they are opposed to the goldfinch, symbol of redemption from the belief that when Christ was crucified, a goldfinch perched on his head and began to extract thorns from the crown that soldiers had placed there.
Detail from Raphael’s ‘Madonna del Cardellino’ (‘Madonna of the Goldfinch’).
In Birds and People, Mark Cocker makes a broader point: that the story of the goldfinch in late medieval art is an indication of how our views of nature have changed. Until relatively recently most people ‘genuinely thought birds existed to fulfil very specific human ends’. He quotes one 18th century author as asserting: ‘Singing birds were undoubtedly designed by the Great Author of Nature on purpose to entertain and delight mankind’.
Which, in a way, brings us back to Fabritius’s goldfinch. Cocker describes the goldfinch as ‘thrice-cursed as a cagebird’: once by its beauty, then by its pleasant song, described by one writer as ‘more expressive of the joy of living than of challenge to rivals’, and finally by its dextrous coordination of bill and feet. In order to feed off thistle heads, the goldfinch has developed the ability to hold down an object with its toes while pulling parts towards them.
Carel Fabritius’s ‘Goldfinch’,1654: ‘thrice-cursed’.
It was precisely these three ‘curses’ that resulted in the predicament of the bird in Fabritius’s painting. Finches like the chaffinch and goldfinch were highly valued as cagebirds for their melodious song, but goldfinches brought something more: they became popular house pets in Holland, kept in captivity attached to a chain and trained to perform the trick of drawing water from a glass placed below the perch by lowering a thimble-sized cup into the glass.
It’s not beyond the bounds of probability that Fabritius, making this painting six years after the United Provinces had gained their independence from Spain, also expected his viewers to read his work as an allegory of freedom chained. In this sense, the painting shares an emotional character with Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Caged Goldfinch’:
Within a churchyard, on a recent grave,
I saw a little cage
That jailed a goldfinch. All was silence save
Its hops from stage to stage.
There was inquiry in its wistful eye,
And once it tried to sing;
Of him or her who placed it there, and why,
No one knew anything.
A few decades after Hardy, Osip Mandelstam, in ‘The Cage’ written after Stalin had ordered his arrest and internal exile in Voronezh from 1935 to 1937, summoned the goldfinch to symbolize his yearning for freedom and self-expression and rage at being caged within ‘a hundred bars of lies’:
When the goldfinch like rising dough
suddenly moves, as a heart throbs,
anger peppers its clever cloak
and its nightcap blackens with rage.
The cage is a hundred bars of lies
the perch and little plank are slanderous.
Everything in the world is inside out,
and there is the Salamanca forest
for disobedient, clever birds.
There’s another goldfinch poem by Thomas Hardy – ‘The Blinded Bird’ – that communicates the same sense of rage at freedom denied, ‘enjailed in pitiless wire’:
So zestfully canst thou sing?
And all this indignity,
With God’s consent, on thee!
Blinded ere yet a-wing
By the red-hot needle thou,
I stand and wonder how
So zestfully thou canst sing!
Resenting not such wrong,
Thy grievous pain forgot,
Eternal dark thy lot,
Groping thy whole life long;
After that stab of fire;
Enjailed in pitiless wire;
Resenting not such wrong!
Who hath charity? This bird.
Who suffereth long and is kind,
Is not provoked, though blind
And alive ensepulchred?
Who hopeth, endureth all things?
Who thinketh no evil, but sings?
Who is divine? This bird.
Hardy – who was an antivivisectionist and founder-member of the RSPCA – wrote the poem as a protest against the Flemish practice of Vinkensport in which finches are made to compete for the highest number of bird calls in an hour. In preparation for the contests, birds would be blinded with hot needles in order to reduce visual distractions and encourage them to sing more. In 1920, after a campaign by blind World War I veterans supported by Hardy the practice was banned. Vinkensport – considered part of traditional Flemish culture – continues today, though the birds are now kept in small wooden boxes that let air in but keep distractions out.
Writing this now brings back the memory of standing in a narrow street in Naples this spring, echoing with the roar of motorcycles and the shouts of people passing. Above the din, I heard a bird sing. Opposite, a tenement rose up, balconies draped with the morning’s washing, and on a fourth floor balcony, my eyes found the bird that sang. Some kind of finch, it was trapped in a cage no more than twice its size. I wrote about that experience back in April, and of the poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar that gave Maya Angelou the title of the first volume of her autobiography:
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!
Leonardo da Vinci, ‘Madonna Litta’, detail
Maybe Hardy had read Leonardo da Vinci’s words on the goldfinch:
The gold-finch is a bird of which it is related that, when it is carried into the presence of a sick person, if the sick man is going to die, the bird turns away its head and never looks at him; but if the sick man is to be saved the bird never loses sight of him but is the cause of curing him of all his sickness.
Like unto this is the love of virtue. It never looks at any vile or base thing, but rather clings always to pure and virtuous things and takes up its abode in a noble heart; as the birds do in green woods on flowery branches. And this Love shows itself more in adversity than in prosperity; as light does, which shines most where the place is darkest.
Ted Hughes celebrated the twitching, thrilling vitality of goldfinches in their free element in ‘The Laburnum Top’:
The Laburnum Top is silent, quite still
in the afternoon yellow September sunlight,
A few leaves yellowing, all its seeds fallen
Till the goldfinch comes, with a twitching chirrup
A suddeness, a startlement,at a branch end
Then sleek as a lizard, and alert and abrupt,
She enters the thickness,and a machine starts up
Of chitterings, and of tremor of wings, and trillings –
The whole tree trembles and thrills
It is the engine of her family.
She stokes it full, then flirts out to a branch-end
Showing her barred face identity mask
Then with eerie delicate whistle-chirrup whisperings
She launches away, towards the infinite
And the laburnum subsides to empty
Simon Armitage, in The Poetry of Birds, wonders why poets have written so many poems about birds. ‘Perhaps at some subconscious, secular level,’ he writes, ‘birds are also our souls’. He continues:
Or more likely, they are our poems. What we find in them we would hope for our work – that sense of soaring otherness. Maybe that’s how poets think of birds: as poems.
Reviewing Donna Tartt’s novel in today’s Guardian, Kamila Shamsie writes that at the conclusion of the book she leads her readers to a place of meaning: in her words, ‘a rainbow edge … where all art exists, and all magic. And … all love.’
Henriette Browne, ‘A Girl Writing The Pet Goldfinch’, 1870: freedom to fly
- The Goldfinch: ‘anything we manage to save from history is a miracle’
- The caged bird sings: of things unknown but longed for still