Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 26 of the Uffizi Museum
Created for? A wedding gift of Raphael to his friend Lorenzo Nasi.
What do you see? The Madonna of the Goldfinch (also known as Madonna del Cardellino in Italian) shows the Virgin Mary (referred to as the Madonna), Jesus, and Saint John. Mary is sitting on a rock and wears a red dress with a blue mantle on top of it. She protectively watches the two children. Saint John, the boy on the left with the gold curly hair, is dressed in animal skins. He holds a goldfinch bird in his hand. He wants to give the goldfinch to Jesus who is touching the head of the goldfinch. Jesus is close to his mother and places his foot affectionately on his mother’s foot. The three figures in this painting are shown in a pyramidal form, the so-called Renaissance triangle, a popular composition in the early Renaissance to represent symmetry in a painting. In the background, you can see a blue and green landscape with bushes, trees, hills, a river, a bridge, a castle, and some houses.
Backstory: Raphael created this work for his very good friend Lorenzo Nasi, a wealthy wool merchant from Florence. The painting shows the meeting between Saint John, Jesus, and Mary. This scene is based on a medieval religious text, Meditationes Vitae Christi, which describes that the Holy Family meets Saint John in the desert on their way back from Egypt (a story that is not mentioned in the Bible). The composition of the work was directly inspired by the painting Saint Veronica by Hans Memling, which was created between 1470 and 1475. The cloths of Mary, the composition, the city in the background are all elements that can also be seen in Memling’s painting. The painting deteriorated severely over time, and in May 1999 it was taken down for restoration. It took almost ten years to finish the restoration. In the meanwhile, a much-lower-quality copy of the painting was on display in the Uffizi Museum.
Symbolism: Madonna is dressed in red and blue. Red is a symbol of the passion of Christ and blue is a symbol of the church. The European goldfinch is associated with the crucifixion of Jesus. In this painting, Saint John passes the bird on to Jesus as a forewarning of his violent death. From the book that Mary is holding, experts have identified the words “Sedes Sapientiae”. This is one of the devotional titles given to Mary and means “seat of wisdom”. It emphasizes that Mary is the one who gave birth to Jesus (who represents the wisdom). When Mary is depicted in the role of the “seat of wisdom”, she is typically shown seated on a throne with Jesus in her lap. However, in this case, the rock on which Mary is sitting serves as the throne. Finally, several flowers can be seen in the painting. While not all flowers have been identified conclusively, many believe the flowers to be: anemones (representing Mary’s sorrow for the passion of Jesus), daisies (representing the innocence of Baby Jesus), plantains (representing the path to follow Jesus), and violets (representing humility).
Why a goldfinch? In European art, the goldfinch is frequently used as a symbol. The European goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis, has a red face and a black and white head. Hundreds of paintings from the Renaissance have depicted the goldfinch. The European goldfinch is often associated with resurrection, but also with the soul, sacrifice, and death. Legend has it that the goldfinch got the red spot on its head after the crucifixion of Jesus when it wanted to pluck a thorn from Jesus’ crown, and a blood drop of Jesus splashed on its head. The goldfinch is indeed known to eat thistles and thorns and has therefore been associated with the crown of thorns that Jesus had to wear during his crucifixion.
Who is Raphael? Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520), popularly known as Raphael, was born in Urbino, a small city a few hours east of Florence. Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he is considered to be one of the great masters of the High Renaissance. He was a very talented architect, drawer, and painter, but is best known for his paintings of the Virgin Mary (so-called Madonnas) and his large-scale depictions of humans. The current work was created during Raphael's period in Florence and shares many similarities with two other paintings of Raphael: the Madonna of the Meadow in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and La Belle Jardinière in the Louvre. A few years later, in 1508, he moved to Rome where he completed many works for the Pope, such as the painting Portrait of Leo X with Two Cardinals.
Fun fact: In 1547, the house of the Nasi family, which was several feet away from the Ponte Vecchio, collapsed. Two of the occupants were killed and much of its decoration was severely damaged, among which this painting. Battista Nasi, the son of Lorenzo Nasi, did all he could to retrieve the remains of this painting as it was a very valuable asset of his father. The painting had broken into six large pieces and even more small pieces. Battista could recover most pieces, except one large piece of the left bottom corner of the painting. The painting was restored by Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, a good friend of Raphael. He did a great job in restoring the painting as this painting has become a very popular part of the Uffizi collection over the next centuries.