The pelican may seem an unlikely candidate to represent a deity. It doesn’t soar like the high-flying eagle nor does it symbolize peace like the mild-mannered dove. Nonetheless, thanks to some ancient beliefs about the pelican’s behavior with its young, the ungainly bird began a long association with Christianity at some point in the second century when an anonymous author wrote the Physiologus. Shortly thereafter, writes Charbonneau-Lassay in The Bestiary of Christ, North African potters were decorating lamps with scenes of a pelican and its chicks as a symbol for Christ and the church.
Symbolic pelican imagery is surprisingly common in American churches (photos 1 – 3 below). Like the eagle (see Sacred Symbols: The Eagle, the post for August 2, 2014), this bird with a large beak and vast wing span shows up in the stained glass and sculpture of many Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. Its meaning, however, is somewhat obscure and may escape many modern observers. In this post we’ll briefly trace the pelican’s career as a sacred symbol as we visit two museums, a Belgian cathedral, and churches in Princeton, NJ, Chicago, IL, Iowa City, IA, and Washington, DC.
Pelican as a Symbol of Christ One legend has it that pelicans revived their lifeless chicks by sprinkling blood on them. The father or mother pelican accomplished this by using its sharp beak to pierce its breast, and then sprinkled the blood from the wound on its young. The blood would revitalize the chicks. The unknown author of the Physiologus, a collection of allegorical stories about various animals and birds, used these notions about the pelican to create a metaphor for Jesus Christ as “redeemer” of the world. Charbonneau-Lassay explains that, “like the pelican’s young, the human race is dead to the life of the spirit and soiled by its sins. The Savior poured his blood over humanity, purifying it by his sacrifice, and gave it back true life.” The pelican thus became a “type” for Christ (see Iconography 101: Types, the post for April 16, 2014).
Another version of the pelican legend describes the bird as having the greatest love among the creatures for its young, so much so that it feeds them with its own blood when other food is scarce. In any case, the main point is that people believed that the pelican was willing to wound itself to save its offspring.
This understanding of the pelican’s meaning continued well into the middle ages and inspired painters, metalworkers, and enamelers alike. Images of the pelican and its chicks commonly appear as a symbol for Christ’s sacrifice on processional and altar crucifixes, including these fine examples from Spain and Italy that are on display at the Walters and St. Louis Art Museums. Look for the pelicans near the top of each cross (photos 4 – 7, click to enlarge).
Pelican as a Symbol for Resurrection When Honorious of Autun wrote the Speculum Ecclesiae (Mirror of the Church) in the twelfth century, the meaning of the pelican had evolved along lines that made the bird an even more useful symbol for Christian clerics. The pelican, Honorious and others believed, did not merely revive the chicks with her blood, but also that she waited three days to restore them to life. This happy coincidence with the Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on the third day enabled Honorius to assert that the pelican “revives them (the chicks) at the end of three days by opening her breast and sprinkling them with blood, even as on the third day God raised his Son.”
The use of a pair of pelicans in the base of a modern altar at Brussels’ Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula creatively suggests the idea of “raising” as one bird lifts the plate glass altar top on its extended wings (photos 8 & 9). Ferguson wrote in Signs & Symbols in Christian Art that the pelican, through its association with Christ’s sacrifice, also represents the Sacrament of the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper. The pelican altar makes the same point symbolically.
Pelican as a Symbol of Self-Sacrifice and Charity More recently, the pelican has acquired a third symbolic meaning. According to Charbonneau-Lassey, at some point in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, artists began to associate the pelican with self-sacrifice and charity. Some placed the pelican alongside allegorical figures representing Caritas, or Charity, in their paintings. Then in the 1700’s, the Freemasons adopted the pelican as a symbol for the virtue of charity.
It is almost certainly in the sense of giving oneself for others that artist Joseph Reynolds, Jr. added a pelican to the “Sacrifice for Freedom” window (photo 10) at the Washington National Cathedral.
The pelican (photo 11) sets to the right of Agnus Dei, the sacrificial lamb of God, above three lancets with various scenes that exemplify the memorable verse in John’s gospel: “Greater love hath no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends.” One panel in the lower left corner of the larger window commemorates the self-sacrifice of the Four Chaplains. The chaplains—a Jewish rabbi, Roman Catholic priest, and ministers of the Methodist and Reformed faiths—helped soldiers board lifeboats after a German U-boat torpedoed the troop transport Dorchester in 1943. They gave up their own life jackets, said prayers, and led hymns as the ship sank beneath them (photo 12). The window was installed in the cathedral’s War Memorial Chapel in 1952.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the pelican sometimes appears in a secular context. Louisiana’s official seal and state flag feature the pelican as a symbol of charity and self-sacrifice as a public virtue (photos 13 & 14). Thus, New Orleans’ professional basketball team is named the Pelicans.
Mike Klug, email@example.com, 8/27/14