The pelican in her piety

Jesus Christ is associated with many images: the Lamb of God, the Good Shepherd… and the Pelican?

Père Igor / CC BY-SA

Christianity is big on pelicans. Thomas Aquinas, the Medieval Christian philosopher, wrote in the hymn Adoro te devote the following:

Pie Pelicane, Jesu Domine,
Me immundum munda tuo Sanguine

Lord Jesus, Good Pelican,
wash my filthiness and clean me with Your Blood

Dante Alighieri, in the Divine Comedy, refers to Jesus the same way:

This is the one who lay upon the breast
Of him our Pelican; and this is he
To the great office from the cross elected.

A 16th century portrait of Queen Elizabeth I of England shows her wearing a pelican symbol on her chest:

Elizabeth's pelican
Walker Art Gallery / Public domain

The pelican even peeks its beak into Shakespeare, in Richard II:

O! spare me not, my brother Edward’s son,
For that I was his father Edward’s son.
That blood already, like the pelican,
Hast thou tapp’d out, and drunkenly carous’d

And Hamlet:

To his good friends thus wide I’ll ope my arms;
And like the kind life-rendering pelican,
Repast them with my blood.

Many coats of arms bear the symbol of the pelican, referred to in heraldry as “the pelican in her piety.” The King James Bible bore, on its first edition title page, the picture of a pelican:

King James Bible
Church of England / Public domain


So, why is this bird a symbol of sacrifice and Christianity?

It all goes back to a Medieval myth that a mother pelican would wound her own breast and let the blood fall into the waiting mouths of her offspring. In some versions of the myth, the pelican was actually resurrecting her dead children with her own blood. Medieval bestiaries loved this image, and statues and paintings of bleeding pelicans became rather popular with the religious set. The metaphorical connection to the Blood of Christ was obvious and well understood: sacrificing one’s own well-being to nourish the less fortunate.

Poetic pelicans did not reach their spiritual apex until 1910, when Dixon Lanier Merritt wrote the following transcendent verse:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the helican!

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