THE BIRD IS THE WORD

 

This pleasant and obviously recent icon in a beautifully enameled riza is called in Russia the Stragovskaya, but its origins are not Russian.  As you have perhaps noticed by now, when there is much gentleness in icons of Mary, it often means Western European influence, and that is again the case here.  The Stragovskaya icon actually takes its name from an earlier image kept in the Strahov Monastery near Prague in the Czech Republic.  The Strahov Monastery was founded in the 12th century.

Stragovskaya:StrahovMadonna

Here is that earlier Strahov Monastery image, an example of Bohemian art of the 14th century, which gives Mary both a crown and a headcovering.

StrahovMadonnaStrahovMonastCzechRepublic

Now if you look closely at the right hand of Jesus in both the earlier and later images, there is a goldfinch pecking at his thumb.  The goldfinch is a bird often found in Western European religious art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  Its presence in icons of Mary with the child Jesus can be traced to the belief that when Jesus was on his way to the Crucifixion, the goldfinch pecked thorns from the crown of thorns impaled on his brow.  In doing so, the head of the goldfinch became stained red with Jesus’ blood.  So the goldfinch became associated, in religious symbolism, with the Passion of Jesus and the redemption of humans, as Christian belief would have it.  Of course to folklorists, this is just another example of the “origin story” of one thing or another — such as why the robin has a red breast, or why the crow is black.  The association of the goldfinch with the crown of thorns likely had its origin when people saw the goldfinch pecking at the seed heads on thistles and the spiny teasel.

EuropeanGoldfinch

Here is one of many examples of the goldfinch in religious art, seen in a 14th century Madonna and Child by Italian painter Taddeo di Bartolo:

 

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