The Feeder Feed: Chicago Edition

I had a way too brief visit to Chicago’s Institute of Art. I hadn’t been for a while and I was eager to refamiliarize myself with the collection.

During the visit, I spied this, which I am sure will interest you as much as it did me.

Here is an unattributed triptych of the early 16th c. from S. Germany.  It depicts Madonna and Child with Saints.  I was happy to see her yesterday, Our Lady’s Feast, and you can see that she is indeed crowned as Queen of Heaven.

She, the Christ Child, and the Saints, are in a garden, calling to mind both paradise and the hortus conclusus.  St. Ursula is in the left part, doing a great imitation of a Schutzmantel Madonna, and the wonderful St. Agnes is on the right.  They are both martyrs.

Atop the fencing posts are different species of birds, carefully detailed.  I suspect the painter worked from the real thing and was a fan.  This is unattributed.  I’d like to think that this was painted by a cloistered sister, or at least a woman, who watched birds and had a bit of a naturalist streak.


Let’s get closer.

Notices that the flowers on the lattice are “pinks”, which in Italian portraits are sometimes associated with marriage.  They are also seen in paintings of Mary in the garden.  There are quite a few examples from both Italy and N. Europe wherein carnations or “pinks” appear.

She is pointing to the piece of fruit in Christ’s hands, an apple, a symbol of paradise and the loss of grace in Original Sin.  Christ is the Second Adam.  But, who is that closest to her head?



This is our old friend the Christological Goldfinch, who today is rather freer than usual.  Usually, the Child is crunching Finchy in one of his pudgy fists.  Here is is, however, the closest of the birds to Mary’s crown, which is not a Crown of Thorns, but which was won through His Thorny Crown.  Newcomers here should know that this European finch got His read face, as legend has it, when he tried to relieve Christ’s suffering on the Cross by plucking thorns from his Head.


There is plenty going on in this not-really-all-that-great painting, which is good for a devotional object as this triptych surely was intended to be.  And it is nice to see our old pal the Christological Goldfinch.

Since the painting is not attributed, it could be fun to make up a short story about the painter.  I must do that someday with some paintings.   I once saw a great though small exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London.  The exhibit included portraits of who-knows-who, people never identified.  Then the clever people who put the exhibit together asked some writers to concoct stories tied to the paintings, true to their period, venue, clothing, depiction, etc.  Fascinating and memorable.  But I digress.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. OrthodoxChick says:

    Dear Fr. Z.,

    I love when you post about Catholic works of art. Catholic art history was never taught much in my school days. I had never heard of the Christological finch before coming to your site and I always learn something new when you share your art discoveries with us. Thank you!

  2. cathgrl says:

    I was at AIC last week, for the Feast of the Assumption, and I saw this piece. This post is so cool!

  3. bookworm says:

    I visited the Art Institute in 2010. I could only stay for about 3 hours and that was not nearly enough time to see everything I wanted to see! My favorite among the medieval religious paintings was a Sorrowful Mother painted by a German artist (whose name I don’t recall at the moment); it was so detailed you could see the lines on Mary’s face and the tears coursing down her cheek.

  4. Angie Mcs says:

    Father, I live in a Chicago suburb, and I am going to go down to the Art Institute to see this- so much rich detail. And it is fascinating to learn about the symbolism in painting. Despite your brief visit, I hope you enjoyed what you saw of the city. Please come back and visit us at St. John Cantius. Its shaping up beautifully, and we would love to see you.

  5. acardnal says:

    Angie Mcs,
    How is the priest from St. John Cantius who was ill several months ago doing?

  6. wanda says:

    Thanks for this, Fr. Z. Birds, flowers and mother Mary. Wonderful.

  7. Angie Mcs says:

    ACARDNAL, I believe you are referring to our pastor, Father Frank Phillips. I’m not privy to any other priest having health problems. It is wonderful to see Father walking better, conducting masses and generally looking much better. It is a miracle what he has done with that beautiful old church, as well as starting up the Canons. He could use our prayers- the work goes on! Thank you for asking.

  8. Kathleen10 says:

    Gosh I really thought this was wonderful art until you mentioned it was not that great. But you see alot of art Fr. Z., so you know the difference. I love art in general and do love the flowers and little birds in this piece. Very sweet. …”Usually the Child is crunching Finchy…”. That’s great.

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