Colourful Goldfinches & Thistles Celtic art plus a look at the symbolism and meaning of goldfinches and thistles...
Goldfinch Symbolism & Folklore
One of our most beautiful and colourful wild birds, goldfinches are also birds we have a long history with, and they feature in a fair few bits of bird folklore, too…
The Anglo-Saxon word for goldfinch was the familiar ‘goldfinc’ – but it was also known as ‘Thisteltuige’ meaning ‘Thistle-tweaker’.
Goldfinches love thistle seeds – one of their common names is the ‘thistle-finch’ and even the goldfinch’s Latin name is ‘Carduelis Carduelis’ which comes from the Latin word for thistle, ‘carduus’.
Other common names refer to the jaunty colour of the goldfinch – ‘goldspink’, ‘gold linnet’, and ‘proud tailor’. The goldfinch also used to be known by the name ‘redcap’, as illustrated by a John Clare poem:
“The redcap is a painted bird
And beautiful its feathers are;
In early spring its voice is heard
While searching thistles brown and bare…”
In earlier times, the gold colour of the birds’ feathers led people to associate them with gold – ie. gold coins and wealth.
In fact, from Tudor times, up until the 19th century, gold coins were sometimes colloquially called ‘goldfinches’. And a common folklore told that if a girl saw a goldfinch on St. Valentine’s Day, she would marry a wealthy man. The word ‘goldfinch’ was also used to refer to a rich man.
Goldfinches also have significant symbolism in the Christian tradition – soul, sacrifice, death, and especially resurrection and the Passion of Christ.
It’s said that the goldfinch saw Jesus’ suffering as he carried the cross to Golgotha. He flew down to pluck the thorns from the crown of thorns. In doing so, some of Jesus’ blood fell upon his face.
As well as the red face of the goldfinch, this also takes note of the reason for the goldfinch’s love of eating the seeds of prickly plants like the thistle and teasel.
Many Renaissance artworks show a goldfinch alongside the Madonna and Child, where the goldfinch is a symbol of the Resurrection – for example, The ‘Madonna Litta’ (1490-91) by Leonardo da Vinci, and the ‘Solly Madonna’ (1502) and ‘Madonna of the Goldfinch’ (1506) by Raphael.
In Renaissance times, the goldfinch also had a reputation for healing sickness. Leonardo da Vinci wrote about a goldfinch being brought to a sick man. If the goldfinch turned away, it was believed that the unfortunate gentleman would die, but if the bird continued to look at the patient, then the goldfinch would himself cure all his sickness.
Goldfinches are also known for their very beautiful song. The collective noun for a goldfinch is a ‘charm’, believed to derive from the Middle English ‘c’irm’ (‘chirme’ or ‘charme’) meaning a clamour of songs or the Latin ‘carmen’ meaning a magic song or spell.
By the Victorian times, goldfinches were kept as caged birds for their song – they were bred extensively and taught tricks. But it was a cruel practice, involving the birds being trapped, sometimes caught on branches by super-sticky ‘bird lime’ – and some were even blinded by hot needles, which was thought to remove visual distractions from the bird to provide the owner with continuous singing. A cruel and barbaric practice!
One of the first campaigns of the emerging Society for the Protection of Birds (now the RSPB) was ‘Save the Goldfinch’, which, happily, was a success, so that we can now enjoy these beautiful birds wild in our hedgerows and gardens, free, as they should be.
Thistle Symbolism & Folklore
As well as its association with the goldfinch, the thistle has its own symbolism, folklore, and meaning. The most well-known is its representation of courage, strength, and determination as the emblem of Scotland.
It’s said that this is connected to the legend of an attack by vicious Norsemen on Largs in Scotland. They were attempting a night-time invasion whilst the Scottish Clansmen slept.
The Norsemen were prickled by thistles and called out, so warning the Clansmen of the attack. The thistle became the emblem of Scotland, along with the motto ‘Nemo me impune lacessit’ meaning ‘None touches me unharmed’.
The thistle is also said to have been of assistance to Charlemagne’s army – the army was saved from a pestilence after Charlemagne was guided by an angle to find a miraculous cure in the carline thistle.
The thistle was popular in France, Germany, and Spain, where it was often nailed to doors to forecast the weather – the thistle flower closes as rain approaches.
In the Christian tradition, the thistle is linked to the Virgin Mary. It’s said Mary used a thistle leaf to drink milk from a cow when she was thirsty. The plant became known as ‘Our Lady’s Thistle’ (also known as ‘Holy Thistle’ or ‘Blessed Thistle’) and the leaves still carry the stain from the milk.
‘Blessed Thistle’ was also believed to be spiritually purifying – it was worn to protect from evil and used in purification baths.
Ancient Chinese herbalists believed the thistle brought long life and and used it to fortify the body.
In herbal medicine, the milk thistle is still used to stimulate and balance liver function – bodily purification.
The thistle symbolises protection from harm, but its colourful flowers also represent radiant sunlight and beauty.
Creating my Goldfinches & Thistles Celtic Art
I wanted to create my artwork with both goldfinches and thistles, as this is one of the plants that the goldfinch seems particularly attracted to, and the symbolism and history of the goldfinch is so intimately connected with the thistle.
I use my pen and pencil drawings, which you've seen above, and combine them digitally in Adobe Illustrator to make the final artwork.
Here, I combined my goldfinches and thistles drawings with a circular Celtic knotwork for the background...
Putting the drawings together digitally...
How to Buy
My 'Goldfinches & Thistles' are available as cushions, T-shirts, mugs, phonecases, shower curtains, journals, notebooks, bags, clocks and much more in my Redbubble store here...
Worldwide delivery is available from manufacture-and-print centres in UK, Europe, USA, Canada & Australia and customs charges will be refunded if you're unlucky enough to be charged...
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