A pelican in her piety. Detail of monument, The Drake Chapel, St Mary’s Amersham.
copyright Carole Tyrrell
This is a more unusual symbol to find in cemeteries and dates from pre-Christian times. There are two versions of the legend. In one, the pelican pierces her own breast to feed her children with her own blood and in the second she feeds her dying children with her own blood to bring them back to life but as a result she dies herself. In both of them the pelican is a potent motif of self-sacrifice and charity. It’s also seen as a powerful representation of Christ’s Passion in that he gave his life for us and rose again. The symbol is known as a pelican in her piety.
However, the legend of the pelican is found in Physiologies, an anonymous Christian work from Alexandria which dates from the 2nd century. It contained legends of animals and their allegorical interpretations which is where the attribution of the pelican’s sacrifice to the Passion of Christ come from. It states that
‘ the pelican is very fond of its brood, but when the young ones begin to grow they rebel against the male bird (the father) and provoke his anger, so that he kills them, the mother returns to the nest in three day, sits on the dead birds, pours her blood over them, revives them, and they feed on the blood.
The pelican in its piety was very popular during the Middle Ages and can be found on altar fronts, fonts and misericords in churches. Also, when tabernacles were occasionally suspended over the altar, they were shaped like pelicans as was one in Durham Cathedral.
Later, in St Thomas Aquinas’s hymn ‘Adoro te devote.’ or Humbly we adore thee’, in the penultimate verse he describes Christ as:
‘the loving divine pelican able to provide nourishment for his breast’
In Nicholas Hilliard’s famous 1573 portrait of Elizabeth I which is known colloquially as the Pelican portrait she wears a prominent piece of jewellery which features a pelican feeding her young with her blood which symbolised her role as Mother of the Nation.
The pelican also appears in Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Act IV in which Laertes says:
‘To his good friend thus wide,
I’ll open my arms.
And, like the kind life-rendering pelican
Repast them with my blood.’
The renowned bird appears in key Renaissance literature. For example, Dante in The Divine Comedy refers to Christ as ‘our Pelican’. John Lyly in Euphues of 1606 also wrote:
‘Pelicane who striketh blood out of its own owne bodye to do others good.’
John Skelton wrote in 1529 in his Armorie of Birds:
‘They sayd the Pellycan’
When my Byrds be slayne
With my bloude I them nevyve. Scripture doth record the same dyd as our Lord
And rose from deth to lyve.’
However, the belief that the pelican nourishes her children with her own blood is a myth. It may have arisen from the fact that pelicans have a large pouch attached under their bill. When the parent is about to feed its chicks, it macerates small fish in this pouch and then whilst pressing the bag against its breast, it transfers the food to the babies.
However, its use in Victorian cemeteries may indicate a resurrection motif in that the pelican gives er life to her children so that they are resurrected. It is quite a rare one to find although it does appear within churches especially on wall memorials, altars and fonts.
This is a magnificent impressive pelican sculpture from a church in Germany.
There is an impressive monument in a Cuban cemetery which has a large marble pelican and children carving on it and there is also one on a memorial in Arnos Vale Cemetery near Bristol. This is an especially poignant one as is it is to a young doctor, Joseph Williams, who insisted on treating the local workhouse inmates for cholera, during the 1849 Bristol epidemic. Sadly, and perhaps inevitably, he succumbed to it himself and subsequently died. Here the pelican and her young are a true representation of self-sacrifice.
This is one is in my local church, St Georges in Beckenham and appears on a monument to Dame Ann Frances Hoare who died in 1800 at 64.
And this one is from the Drake Room in St Mary’s Church Amersham.
Here is a more recent use of the Pelican in her piety on a World War II blood donor appeal.
Word war II Scottish blood donor recruitment poster.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.
Pfarr- und Wallfahrtskirche St. Philippus und Jakobus, Bergatreute Hochaltar: Vogelnest, 2007, photographer Andreas Praefcke
How to read symbols, Clare Gibson, 2009, Herbert Press
An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J C Cooper, Thames & Hudson 1979