thoughts on The Virgin of the Goldfinches

My painting of The Virgin of the Goldfinches, purchased by the Contemporary Art Society for Wales, hangs permanently in the Saint Dyfrig Chapel of Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff. Earlier this year I was asked by Alan Torjussen to write an account of why I chose to paint the subject in the way I did.

‘Well, it’s Wales of course, though the Wales of imagination. On the horizon is Mwnt, a place I love, with the waters of Cardigan Bay sweeping to a golden sky. The house is a construct, a thing of the imagination. That lapidary blue sings to me, though the building is fortress-like… almost brutally so… to protect the prize, the Virgin closeted within. I think of her as the precious jewel in the jewellery box. But no matter how closely something is guarded, security in this life is not ensured. She’s risen early from sleep, gathered her bed-coverlet as a mantle against the morning chill and walked out alone into the garden. Up the hill to where saxifrage and sweet Cheddar Pink and fragrant Lily-of-the-Valley grow, perhaps to feed the goldfinches with a pinch of seed. The goldfinches were serendipitous, the birds that gathered at the feeder in my garden the morning I went out to paint whatever was around. But goldfinches are associated with Christ, their brave, cardinal-red caps significant of him in folkloric terms.

People sometimes wonder why Gabriel is red, and I reply, why would he not be? I balk at those pale, blonde, sexless angels in white Victorian nightgowns. For me an angel must be fierce and dazzling and bright with colour, and I look to the angels of the Romanesque with their sweeping black brows, dark eyes and wings like parrots, barred and striped and emblazoned with peacock eyes. And here he comes, swooping down, outrider goldfinches before him, and after this, nothing in the world will ever be the same again.

I’m asked if I have faith. I was asked it repeatedly by the clergy at Llandaff before the painting was hung. I do not. None. But I do love the stories, and think we are the better for them, because they are full of splendour and poetry and essential truths. Moreover, it’s a strange thing that though I profess no religious belief, I find I believe the things that I’m painting. Like an actor inhabiting a role, I too inhabit the worlds and scenarios I’m depicting.

The American poet and novelist Marly Youmans, pointed out that the maze is positioned as though to stand in for the Virgin’s halo. That surprised me at the time because it wasn’t a conscious placing in those terms, though it may well have been subconscious. And she spoke too of the maze as being emblematic of the womb, with the solitary sheep the seed planted at heart of it. I love the poetry of that. I think that paintings should have such elements of mystery within them. Nothing laid on too heavily, but placed lightly to nourish repeated viewings. At the time I made the painting I didn’t know it would hang in a church. Once I’d got used to the idea, it appealed to me that people might see it regularly and that the painting might grow on them and become associated with moments of quietness and contemplation. I would like that for visitors and worshippers it shouldn’t matter who made the painting, but just that it exists.’

Clive Hicks-Jenkins 2013

22 thoughts on “thoughts on The Virgin of the Goldfinches

  1. Clive, I have just discovered your work and have fallen in love with both the Rapture and the virgin of the goldfinches. As a child, I went to boarding school in Llandaff and spent many enforced hours at Llandaff Cathedral on Sundays worrying that one of Epstein Christ’s very large feet would fall on my head. It always felt such a concrete, masculine place. Your virgin and Gabriel sound like the best addition I can think of – and might even persuade me to go back and make peace with the place. Btw – any change in your plan to offer prints of your paintings? If not, I might have to come up with a plan. 🙂

    • What a lovely thing to read here. Thank you.

      I have been making a lot of screenprints. You can find my ongoing Gawain and the Green Knight series at The Penfold Press, where I’m working in collaboration with Daniel Bugg. There are plans afoot, too, to make screenprints of a number of subjects that I persistently return to, so look out for those in the not too distant future.

      However, I have no plans to make print reproductions of my paintings. That would be a business undertaking in its own right, expensive to produce and time consuming to market, and I simply don’t have any inclination to pursue it.

  2. I saw this painting for the first time yesterday and was utterly mesmerised by it.
    An outstanding piece of art!

    If only there were prints available…

    • Thank you, Emma. I like ‘mesmerised’. Absolutely what I’d hoped for. I’m obliged to you for finding me to tell me so.

      There are no reproductions I fear. I have no time for the marketing and distribution involved, though if any company out there wanted to do it, I’d be up for it.

  3. oh, this is one of my favorites, it’s so beautiful! i agree about the angel, i love the idea of him burning with an inner flame. i’d never noticed about the maze being like a halo, but how interesting to see it that way! that what makes us ‘holy’ is sometimes difficult to get to, it takes effort. the blue in this one is amazing, and those little birds seem to glimmer. it’s wondrous!

  4. I love it too and you know how I feel about your ‘glowing reds.’
    Has Gabriel come to ‘write a new chapter’ for her and the world, the ‘quill’ in his left hand?
    Shalom and love
    B xxx

    PS. Or rather, stage right!

  5. I love every aspect of this painting – along with The Rapture, it’s one of your works that I carry around in my head, it’s etched on my mind for always I think, gorgeous

  6. I do love that picture and am so glad to have seen it “in the real.”

    My feeling is that since artworks have a free, springing life of their own rather than being gripped and deadened by our conscious control, all sorts of unforeseen elements may blossom out of them. You enter into and become part of the ancient, rich life of your narratives; you commit one kind of prayer, whether you claim it as such or not. I find that fascinating.

  7. Yes, Clive, this is one of my favourites too, and I’m moved by what you wrote about it. What is faith, anyway? Aren’t we all enlarged by your personal definition? I think so. Perhaps the maze as halo can also be seen as a labyrinth that represents the mind (it even looks like a brain) and the way we become trapped by thoughts but know, even in our confusion, that there is a way out, a solution to the puzzle.

  8. Isnt it interesting when someone sees unintentioned meanings in your work? And yet they MUST be subconscious. Marly’s interpretation fits so well. I am in awe of this painting it is utterly utterly beautiful. Is the church near to you, can we visit it?

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