Mary, Jesus, and Goldfinches

Madonna of the Goldfinch

In late medieval Europe, portraits of Mary and Jesus were often graced by a tiny, winged visitor:  a goldfinch.

Why?  Art historians say that because this particular bird is often found eating thistle seeds and gathering thistle down, the goldfinch’s appearance in these paintings is a reference to the crown of thorns (or the crown of thistles) that was placed on Jesus’ head during his Passion.  According to legend, when Jesus was carrying his cross up Calvary, a goldfinch fluttered above his head and mercifully plucked a thistle from his brow.  In doing so, the bird's face was stained red with a drop of Jesus’ blood – and that flash of red, surrounded by those wings of gold, can still be seen today.

I wonder, however, if those artists who added goldfinches to their paintings also knew that the birds’ nests are entirely built by females of the species – or that they build them, taking after “Our Mother who art in Heaven,” within only a week’s time.  For seven days they weave together tiny palaces of moss, lichen, and thistle down, and then miraculously bind them all to tree branches using spider silk.  What's more, they engineer each nest to be deep enough to prevent the loss of their eggs, and later those growing baby birds, in even the most windy, stormy weather.  

Every time I see a goldfinch with Jesus and Mary, my mind wanders to such things.  I imagine the painter saying, "Look, see how Mary made such a good nest for her little boy.  He felt so loved and so safe in that palace of moss and lichen, that nest of tenderness and care, that he could grow into the courage he’d need to face a world full of thorns.  And there he learned, too, that sometimes the most apparently fragile things – a spider’s silken thread, or a ray of hope on a difficult day – are often the very things that bond us together most strongly, that help us endure, that hold us fast when the storms come along."

And if Jesus learned these things from Mary, we can learn from both of them – and from the beautiful, unassuming, compassionate golden bird that can lift our spirits whenever we see it.  She darts and weaves.  She builds strong palaces out of fragile things.  And she’s unafraid to come close enough to pluck away a painful thistle, close enough to be baptized with a single drop of blood. 

Oh, to live with even a touch of that brave goldfinch beauty.  To fly close to the heart of life.  To make nests of thistle down, wrapped in spider silk.  To flash both golden and red in the late summer sun...  

Thanks be to God for such a strong, loving, soaring, winged witness of goodness and grace!

Peace and thistles,

The SALT Team 

p.s.  Here's a little song that reminds of our great, soft, and strong goldfinch God!