Finches are small, often colorful songbirds with strong, conical beaks that are found over much of the world. The finch, particularly the European goldfinch, has a rich history of symbolism in European painting and literature dating back to the early Middle Ages.

Birds as Christian Symbols

Bird at feeder
Bird at feeder

According to Beryl Rowland, author of "Birds with Human Souls", birds represent the immortal soul. A bird in flight symbolizes the freeing of the soul from its bodily cage and its ascent to Heaven.

The Goldfinch and Christ's Passion

European finch
European finch

According to legend, a goldfinch tried to remove the crown of thorns from Christ's head. A thorn pierced its beak, resulting in the red splotch on the face of the European goldfinch.

Paintings

Medieval and Renaissance painters, including Raphael, Tiepolo and Foschi, associated the goldfinch with the Passion of Christ in paintings that depict Mary and the Christ Child holding the bird.

Symbol of Liberty

Bird cage
Bird cage

Finches, like canaries, are often caged as pets for their beauty and joyous songs. The caged songbird has long served as a symbol of repressed humanity, and the free bird as a symbol of liberty.

Goldfinch in Poetry

European goldfinch in flight
European goldfinch in flight

After his imprisonment and exile as a dissident in the 1930s, the great Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, wrote poems about the goldfinch, as did William Cowper in 1780 and Anna Letitia Barbauld in 1825.

State Bird

American goldfinch
American goldfinch

The American goldfinch, found across the continent of North America, is the state bird of New Jersey, Washington and Iowa.