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Birds have long been a source of artistic inspiration.

Sano di Pietro (Siena 1406-Siena 1481)

The Virgin and Child, Two Saints and six Angels c.1460-70

RCIN 403482

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In this 15th-century devotional panel, the infant Christ is holding a goldfinch tightly in his fist. This little bird was often included in such depictions of the Virgin and Child. To a devout Italian of the time, the goldfinch would have been seen as a prefiguration of Christ’s death. A popular medieval legend recounted that, when Christ was carrying the cross to Calvary, a goldfinch flew down and plucked a thorn from the crown on his head, causing a drop of his blood to fall onto its feathers. This explains, according to the legend, the goldfinch’s blood-red head, a detail included in this painting.