It was Easter Friday 2016 when a loud BANG interrupted our family breakfast. A young goldfinch had slammed into the window and dropped. Our daughter (11) rushed to its aid but the bird wasn't moving. She cupped it in her hands and prepared a straw-lined-bed-in-a-box. My wife and I encouraged her but wondered how things would end. Two hours later the bird fully opened it's eyes, turned it's head and stood up. Next thing we knew it was flying around the room and perched on a white love-heart decoration hanging from the ceiling. My daughter held it in her hand for one last time before it flew skyward.
The whole thing felt like a message from God. It wasn’t just a blackbird, fantail, or thrush, it was a goldfinch on Good Friday! So what? Read on...
Several years back I learnt something interesting about goldfinches in art. During the Renaissance, the European goldfinch became associated in paintings with important theological symbols such as the suffering, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The legend tried to explain the distinctive red markings on the Goldfinch’s head, and its diet of thistles and thorns.
This post-biblical legend developed around the goldfinch being a witness to the humiliating march of Jesus carrying the cross to Golgotha. A goldfinch flew above the staggering figure of Jesus and was distressed by the crown of thorns on his head. It flew down and tried to pluck off the thorns and some of Jesus’ blood dripped onto the goldfinch’s head. Hence the origin of its red face feathers.
George Ferguson (1961:19) remarks: The goldfinch is fond of eating thistles and thorns, and since all thorny plants were accepted as an allusion to Christ’s crown of thorns, the goldfinch became an accepted symbol of the Passion of Christ. In this sense, it frequently appears with the infant Jesus, showing the close connection between the Incarnation and Passion.
These two points about plucking the thorns and being stained in red blood became of interest to Renaissance painters.
Ornithologist Herbert Friedmann (1946) wrote about some four hundred and eighty-six paintings that feature the Goldfinch. While two hundred and fifty-four artists used the Goldfinch in Christian devotional paintings. Among the notable painters are Leonardo da Vinci (Madonna Litta, 1490–1491), Raphael (Solly Madonna, 1502, and Madonna of the Goldfinch, 1506), Zurbarán (Madonna and Child with the Infant St John, 1658) and Tiepolo (Madonna of the Goldfinch, 1760).
Postscript: A funny thing happened on the way to work (in 1996)
Back then I lived in central Christchurch and most days would walk to work at ad agency, Foote Cone and Belding. One morning, feeling pretty sad (actually sorry for myself) I was walking along when out of nowhere a sparrow flew straight into my foot and dropped dead to the ground! At that instant I was reminded of a Bible verse about God caring for us more than sparrows: “Aren’t two sparrows sold for a cent? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are numbered. So don’t be afraid: you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29).
George Ferguson (1961). Signs and Symbols in Christian Art
(London & Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Herbert Friedmann (1946). The Symbolic Goldfinch: Its History and Significance in European Devotional Art (The Bollingen Series VII. Washington DC: Pantheon Books).