The Birthday Tree

The Birthday Tree

There was a cherry tree in the front garden of the house in Cheshire where I grew up.  Every year in spring, when the delicate white blossom would appear suddenly, as if snow had fallen overnight, I would sense that brighter, longer days were on the way. It later succumbed to poisoning from a poorly sealed-off gas main. Continue reading “The Birthday Tree”

The goldfinch: symbol of salvation yet thrice-cursed, ‘enjailed in pitiless wire’

The goldfinch: symbol of salvation yet thrice-cursed, ‘enjailed in pitiless wire’

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.

Taddeo di Bartolo Sienna , Virgin and Child, 13C

Detail from Taddeo di Bartolo’s ‘Virgin and Child’,14th century

Virgin and Child, Florence, 13 or 14C

‘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’.

Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, detail

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

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.

Raphael, Madonna del Cardellino Madonna of the Goldfinch detail

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.

Fabritius, The Goldfinch,1654

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, Madonna Litta detail

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

Henriette Browne, ‘A Girl Writing The Pet Goldfinch’, 1870: freedom to fly

See also

Leonardo Live

We went to FACT last night to watch the preview of Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan beamed live from the National Gallery to Picturehouse cinemas all over Britain and also, we discovered, broadcast on Sky Arts.  That made it felt more like watching a TV documentary than I think we expected, albeit on the big screen. Tim Marlow was on hand doing his usual fluent and intelligent digests in front of key paintings and drawings as the great and good shuffled past in the background.  Meanwhile, Mariella Frostrup (who I’m not a great fan of) did her rather sickly routine on an elegant couch, interviewing passing art experts such as Luke Syson, the Da Vinci exhibition’s curator, and Jonathan Marsden, Director of the Royal Collection, and celebrities such as musician Nitin Sawnhey.

The cinema was packed, reinforcing the sense of being part of a national event.  The programme wasn’t entirely live – there were filmed inserts that introduced the theme of each section of the exhibition – but I was impressed by the preparation and skill which ensured that the live interviews and Marlow’s live pieces to camera before selected works flowed, seemingly effortlessly (apart from one moment when Marlow had to get out his notes when the teleprompter had failed.  In fact, the technical glitches lay elsewhere, in the transmission to the cinemas – the picture stuttering, freezing and snapping to black on many occasions during the 90 minute broadcast.

The scale of a cinema screen provided a great opportunity to view works from the exhibition, though obviously was no substitute for seeing the paintings up close for yourself.  But the show is pretty well sold out anyway, so an event like this is a reasonable substitute for those of who live in the provinces, or who prefer to avoid the scrum at blockbuster exhibitions like this.

And this is a blockbuster: it’s a unique event, the most comprehensive exhibition of Leonardo’s paintings ever put on by a museum.  We are never likely to see so many of Leonardo’s paintings bought together in our lifetimes.  Leonardo produced very few paintings – 20 at most.  There are nine in the National Gallery exhibition, all dated from his years in Milan, as well as the 8 metre-wide 1520 scale copy of Leonardo’s 1492-8 Last Supper which, being a fresco, is pretty firmly attached to the wall of the dining hall at the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

There have been many exhibitions that have looked at Leonardo da Vinci as an inventor, scientist or draughtsman, but this is the first to be dedicated to his work as a painter. It is centred around the recently restored National Gallery painting, The Virgin of the Rocks, and concentrates on the work he produced as court painter to Duke Lodovico Sforza in Milan in the late 1480s and 1490s.

As a painter, Leonardo aimed to convince viewers of the reality of what they were seeing while still aspiring to create ideals of beauty – particularly in his exquisite portraits which, for me are the highlight of the exhibition – while seeking to convey a sense of awe-inspiring mystery in his religious works.

I’ve never quite understood why the Mona Lisa has come to be regarded as such an iconic painting, perhaps the best-known in the whole history of art, but the portraits on display here are magnificent.  They include La Belle Ferronière (from the Louvre), The Lady with an Ermine (from Cracow), and Portrait of a Young Man (The Musician).  I feel the same excitement, viewing these portraits, as I do when I look at the Fayum mummy portraits from the first three centuries AD – seeing a person rendered with their individual personality before the age of the photograph

Portrait of a Young Man (top) was painted around 1486, and, as Tim Marlow explained, only recent restoration work has confirmed that this is a portrait of a musician – the sheet of music he holds in his hand having been overpainted, but now revealed through restoration.  In The Guardian, Adrian Searle wrote:

The picture captures a transitional moment, not just for the man in the picture but for the painting itself, which for all its detail appears partly unfinished – most conspicuously the man’s broad lapels are a frankly brushed single layer of brownish underpaint. We are caught between completion and finish. The end of the song, perhaps, but not of the painting. Leonardo himself wrote that “painting lords it over music because it does not perish as soon as it is created, as unfortunate music does.”

The Lady with an Ermine (below) is Leonardo’s 1489-90 portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, who became the Duke of Milan’s mistress at the age of 15.  Whereas the convention in portraits had been to depict the subject in strict profile, she turns away from us, considering something beyond the painting, a slight smile about to break on her lips. The ermine is both a play on her name and a talisman of pregnancy and childbirth. Tim Marlow also suggested that it added ‘something wriggly’ and sensuous to the painting, and revealed that it provides a clue as to the sitter’s identity, being an allusion to her name ‘Gallerani’, which is reminiscent of the Greek work for ermine, ‘galée’. For Marlow the triumph of the painting resides in the way that  the curving, spiralling body of the ermine repeats the movement of the woman. The elegant curve of her enlarged hand corresponds perfectly with the movement of the animal, the bent wrist echoing the raised, right paw of the ermine.

Leonardo da Vinci: Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady with an Ermine)

La Belle Ferronnière (below), was painted a few years later, and this woman also appears to be thinking about something beyond the frame. She looks suspicious, challenging – certainly not a woman to tangle with. The show’s curator Luke Syson believes it may be a portrait of the Duke of Milan’s wife Beatrice d’Este. The painting takes its name from a type of band worn across the forehead, known as a Ferronière, which was especially popular in Milan at that time.  The painting has been executed on a walnut panel that experts think originated from the same tree as The Lady with the Ermine.

Leonardo da Vinci: Portrait of a Woman (La Belle Ferronniére)

Interviewed by Mariella Frostrup, the exhibition’s curator Luke Syson explained that the period up to 1500 was an important one for da Vinci, in which he developed, both as a painter and thinker.  It was during this period that da Vinci became interested in the sciences, especially anatomy, and the many drawings on display show a mind constantly thinking, sketching and pushing at its intellectual limits.  Syson explained how da Vinci developed his concept of painting as a science, equating seeing with perceiving – a radical idea in the 15th century:

Da Vinci thought that the eye and what you could see was the most important way of experiencing the world and that painting could encapsulate all that was visible and invisible in it.  He’s getting closer to the belief that a painter in some ways imitates the mind of God himself;  his own creativity is akin to god’s creation and it’s a huge leap.

Another highlight of the exhibition for da Vinci enthusiasts is the appearance of the National Gallery’s version of the Virgin of the Rocks, recently cleaned, alongside the Louvre’s version, still muddy-toned from layers of glaze, and unrestored.  Up to now the National’s was considered to be a slightly inferior version of the altarpiece in the Louvre, possibly with much of the painting done by studio assistants. But after restoration the refinement of the detail, depth of field and exquisite tonal harmonies make it apparent that only Leonardo could have painted it.

Also on public view is the Salvator Mundi, a painting of Christ as the saviour of the world, only recently confirmed as a Leonardo da Vinci painting, as well as many beautiful drawings, 33 of them on loan from the Royal Collection.

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