Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Goldfinch in Art History.

I've been promising to write up this story for a month now. Goldfinches seem to turn up in paintings far more often than other small birds. I wanted to know why.

At Paxton Pits Nature Reserve we see goldfinches every day, either on our feeders on the teasels and thistles that are so common on our site, but to find them in art, we need to travel a bit. The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is a good start, or, if you are lazy like me, there is the Internet!

Today my son came up from Finchley (on the north side of London) and it all came back to me. How did Finchley get its name?

What kind of finch lived in Finchley? Was Finch-ley literally a field (ley) with finches, or was it a field owned by a man named Finch? To be honest no-one really knows, but there is no record of anyone named Finch that is associated with the parish. Actually there is no early history of the village at all. It is not mentioned in the Domesday Book (11th C) but it slowly gained prominence as a source of timber and then hay for Londoners up into the 20th century when it started to evolve into a suburb.

As a village on the north edge of London, it would have been an important location for an urban population who needed fresh produce for the larder and fodder for horses. I'm convinced that the village was also a focus for the wild bird trade.

Take a look at the crest that is used by the local authority. It is topped by a finch, but which species? In the oldest versions that I can find it is a goldfinch, but in the later RAF Squadron insignia it became a greenfinch. Generally the goldfinch has a long historic pedigree while other finches are almost always generic.

In Ancient Greece (and perhaps Egypt) goldfinches were associated with good fortune and wealth. We still talk about a "charm" of goldfinches rather than a flock.

In the Medieval period a huge number of religious paintings were made that showed the Madonna and Child with a goldfinch. What was that all about?

I think that an amalgam of historic associations comes to play here; some Pagan and some Christian.

The older view that Goldfinches represented wealth and good-fortune was not abandoned but became fused with the idea of the "thistle-bird" that plucked the thorns from Christ's head and so had it's forehead stained with blood. Goldfinches, probably because of this association with Christ, also became miraculous and so, during the Medieval period when Europe was plagued by waves of "Black Death" and other diseases such as fatal forms of influenza, a goldfinch might cure you by simply fixing you with its inscrutable stare.

European artists operating in the 17th Century and afterwards merged the two earlier notions but also brought in a more humanist viewpoint, treating the bird as a subject in itself and posing questions about the idea of keeping birds (or people?) in captivity.

18th Century portraits of wealthy families in Europe often show children with pet goldfinches and these reflect the idea of wealth and good fortune, but they also reflect the tradition that every family personifies the holy family.

The Dutch masters evolved a super realistic, almost photographic view of their domestic world but, in a time of religious and political schism, they introduced a sophisticate level of symbolism into their paintings that was often scandalous and usually humorous.

Madonna and child by Raphael.
A caged bird in a portrait of a lady represented her virtue. A cage without a bird represented the opposite. Often a map on the wall showed that her husband was away. There are many more layers of encoding in these paintings that academics still debate.

In my view, there is no denying the fact that a disproportionate amount of paintings throughout history include goldfinches and I always think that one reason for this has to be that artists simply like painting goldfinches!

In looking around the Internet, I have found some really good resources on this subject so, rather than steal their work, I'm giving you their links:


Mark Cocker's book "Man and Birds" is a great place to start on anything relating to birds and I use an old book "All the Birds of the Air"  by Francesca Greenoak regularly.

It's a big subject, worthy of a whole book, but I hope that I have peaked your interest enough for you to look out for goldfinches (and other birds) at your local gallery. I'm still having fun with this.