The pelican of the Middle Ages was thought to pierce herself in her breast in order to feed her blood to her young. Alternate stories tell of how the pelican would kill her young in a fit of pique, and then pierce her breast in later remorse. The blood thus brought forth, falling on the dead chicks, brought them back to life.
Generally, depictions of the pelican are meant to indicate Christ the Saviour who shed his blood in a like manner.
In medieval heraldry, a pelican is an eagle-beaked bird always shown plucking at her breast. If shown alone she is blazoned (described in heraldic terms) as "vulning herself". If the young are shown with the parent, she is blazoned as "a pelican in her piety".
Note: My interest in the depiction of the medieval pelican stems from my membership in the Order of the Pelican, an aspect of the Society for Creative Anachronism. I also maintain interests in SCA heraldry, medieval heraldry, needlework, and very old needlework pattern books. Most of the examples below come from sources in these areas. -- Donna Hrynkiw (SCA: Elizabeth Braidwood)
From an address given at Barry University, Florida, about a pelican statue found there.
The pelican is indeed an ancient symbol in the Church, its symbolic meaning originating in the Bible, Psalm 102, where the Psalmist says: "I am like a pelican of the wilderness."
This reference (even though it was probably a mistranslation for a hawk or cormorant) gave rise to a number of legends and allegorical interpretations in the Middle Ages.
Because of the way that the pelican feeds its young, many who observed this bird believed that the pelican pierced its own breast to feed its offspring. It has stood as a symbol of self-sacrifice and nurturing for centuries.
The Physiologus, a second century work of a popular theological type, described animals both real and imaginary and gave each an allegorical interpretation. It told of the pelican drawing the blood from its own breast to feed its young. The physical reality which probably resulted in this legend is that the long beak of the pelican has a sack or pouch which serves as a container for the small fish that it feeds its young. In the process of feeding them, the bird presses the sack back against its neck in such a way that it seems to open its breast with its bill. The reddish tinge of its breast plumage and the redness of the tip of its beak prompted the legend that it actually drew blood from its own breast.
The Physiologus, and later Latin Bestiaries of the Middle Ages, found the action of the pelican, so interpreted, as a particularly appropriate symbol of the sacrifice of Christ the Redeemer shedding His blood, and thus the symbol of the pelican grew to have a wide usage in Christian literature and art. Thomas Aquinas did indeed use the figure of the pelican in his beautiful hymn appointed to be sung in Thanksgiving after Communion, the Adoro Te Devote:"Pie Pellicane, Jesu Domine,
Me immundum munda Tuo sanguine. (verse 3)
O Loving Pelican, O Jesu Lord,
Unclean am I but cleanse me in Thy blood."
We also find a reference in Dante's Paradiso (25.113), and in Act IV, scene V of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Laertes says to the King:"To his good friends thus wide I'll open my arms;
And like the life-rendering pelican,
Repast them with my blood."
In medieval and baroque art, the pelican is often found as an ornament on altars, chalices, and tabernacle doors. The image of the bleeding mother bird appears frequently on coats of arms in heraldry, including the seal of the State of Louisiana.
An essay by Hans Brandhorst from Museum Meermano in Netherlands.
This image from: The Medieval Menagerie - Animals in the Art of the Middle Ages by Janetta Rebold Benton, Abbeville Press Publishers, New York, 1922, ISBN 1-55859-133-8, pg 22.
The Pelican is excessively devoted to its children. But when these have been born and begin to grow up, they flap their parents in the face with their wings, and the parents, striking back, kill them. Three days afterward the mother pierces her breast, opens her side, and lays herself across her young pouring out her blood over the dead bodies. This brings them to life again.
In the same way, Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the originator and maker of all created things begets us and calls us into being out of nothing. We, on the contrary, strike him in the face. As the prophet Isaiah says: "I have borne children and exalted them and truly they have scorned me." We have struck him in the face by devoting ourselves to the creation rather than the creator.
That was why he ascended into the height of the cross, and, his side having been pierced, there came from it blood and water for our salvation and eternal life.'
From: The Book of Beasts, T.H. White (translated and edited), New York, 1954, repr. 1984.
From: Corsair: The Online Research Resource of The Pierpont Morgan Library, Images from Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts MS M.81, fol. 61v detail. (Last visited 27 Dec 2006.)
Description "Bestiary: Pelican in her Piety -- One of three pelicans is pecked at breast by two young and on back by two more young. The second pelican holds neck of dead young on ground. The third pelican feeds one young by ejecting blood from its beak into beak of young."
Image origin: Médiathèque de l'Agglomération, ms. 177, fol. 144v.
"Sacrifice du pélican, passion du Christ.
Je suis devenu semblable au pélican du désert (Ps. CI, 7).
"Le pélican est un oiseau d'égypte qui habite dans les régions désertes du Nil. On raconte que cet oiseau tue ses petits de son bec et les pleure ensuite pendant trois jours. Après trois jours, il se blesse lui-même de son bec, et asperge ses petits de son sang." [Isidore de Séville, étymologies, XII, 7, 26]. Ainsi, il ressuscite ceux qu'il avait d'abord tués, par une vivifiante aspersion de son sang.
Selon le sens spirituel, le pélican symbolise le Christ, l'égypte, le monde. Le pélican vit dans le désert parce que seul le Christ a été digne de naître d'une vierge sans qu'elle s'unisse avec un homme. De plus, le désert où se trouve le pélican signifie que la vie du Christ est pure de tout péché. Cet oiseau tue ses petits avec son bec, parce par le discours des sermons il convertit les incroyants. Il continue de pleurer sur ses petits, parce que quand le Christ ressuscita Lazare, il pleura par compassion (Jn. XI, 33-35). Ensuite, trois jours après, il ressuscite ses petits de son sang, parce que le Christ sauve les rachetés par son sang.
Les transcriptions du texte sont extraites du fac-similé du manuscrit 177 de la Médiathèque de l’Agglomération troyenne, introd. et trad. Rémy Cordonnier, Paris, Phénix Éditions, 2004.
description of the pelican (original latin and translation) begins near the
bottom of Folio
34v and continues on the next two pages.
Multi-scene illustration is on Folio 34r (detail).
(Last visited 27 Dec 2006.)
Description: "Illustration: the narrative is divided into three scenes showing the babies attacking their parent, the parents killing the babies and the mother piercing her side to resurrect her offspring. The birds are lively but quite unrealistic. There are both white and Dalmatian pelicans in the southern Mediterranean. They both eat fish but the rest of the account is unrealistic. Possibly the idea of mother pouring sustenance over her babies comes from the birds' habit of regurgitation."
"Folio 01 - Évêque, pélican, chouette, pie et démon
Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Français 19093
Le premier folio comporte des dessins de caractère caricatural et qui ne paraissent pas avoir été tous tracés par la même main. On y notera l'intérêt pour les formes de la nature qu'on retrouve fréquemment dans ce manuscrit."
From: Corsair: The Online Research Resource of The Pierpont Morgan Library, Images from Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts MS M.72 fol. 12v. (Last visited 27 Dec 2006.)
Description: Flagellation of Christ. "Christ, cross-nimbed, wears long loincloth. He is bound by His hands to column, topped by pelican, pecking breast to feed two young."
From: Corsair: The Online Research Resource of The Pierpont Morgan Library, Images from Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts MS M.0729, fol. 345v. (Last visited 27 Dec 2006.)
Description: Crucifixion of Christ. "Christ, cross-nimbed, wears a crown of thorns on His inclined head and long loin cloth. He bleeds from His wounds. He is affixed with three nails to the Tree of Life with a titulus inscribed INRI. On top of the tree is a pelican in her piety."
Image origin: Manuscrits, Français 1951 fol. 18v
"Le pellican qui s'ocist pour resusciter ses faons" (le pélican
qui se tue pour ressusciter ses petits)
Le pélican est un oiseau extraordinaire. Il habite en Égypte sur le rivage du Nil. Le pélican élève ses oisillons avec beaucoup d'amour. Mais il en est bien mal récompensé ; car lorsqu'ils sont grands ceux-ci le frappent à coup de bec ; alors, très en colère le pélican tue ses petits. Mais au bout de trois jours, il revient, se perce le flanc de son bec et avec le sang qui en jaillit, il les fait renaître à la vie. Pour le chrétien le pélican symbolise le Christ qui a racheté les hommes de son sang."
From: Corsair: The Online Research Resource of The Pierpont Morgan Library, Images from Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts MS M.0700, fol. 031v detail. (Last visited 27 Dec 2006.)
Description: "In lower margin, pelican in her piety flanked by dog and rabbit..."
CHASUBLE-ORPHREY WITH THE TREE OF JESSE
Lyon, Musée Historique des Tissus. (Inventory No. 1189)
145x35cm. Detail illustrated: 70x35cm
...Gold thread, linen thread, and silk in yellow, red, blue and green, in various shades ranging from light to dark. Outlines in brown silk. All the vine leaves are worked in petit point, with the small tent stitches worked through the upper layer of linen only. Split and satin stitch. The background, in underside couched gold embroidery, is worked with quatrefoils containing lions. - The style of this embroidery is closely related to that of miniatures by the master of the Queen Mary Psalter and his circle.
Lit.: A.G.I. Christie, English Medieval Embroidery, Oxford 1938, p. 114 - E.G. Miller, La miniatre anglaise, Paris-Bruxelles 1928, II p. 19, 61 Pl 39 (Ms. now in Pierpont Morgan Library, New York) - D. King, Opus Anglicanum, Exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum 1963, Cat. p. 33, No. 57" (Illustration source: Paris, Giraudon)
Detail of an orphrey embroidery on the Pienza Cope showing realistically depicted birds similar to those recorded in fig. 23.
Description from: A Pictorial History of Embroidery by Marie Schuette and Sigrid Müller-Christensen, Thames and Hudson, 1964.
(Fig 103) "Detail from a cope. England, second quarter of the 14th century."
COPE, detail: Nativity
Height: 164 cm Diameter: 350 cm
Double layer of linen. Pearls (stolen in 1882), gold and silver thread, and coloured silk in blue, green shaded with yellow, sepia, fawn, grey, pink, brown and amber. Underside couching, split stitch sometimes alternating with petit point, laid and couched work, and satin stitch. ... A gift from Pope Pius II (1458-1464) to the Cathedral of his birthplace, in the year 1462.
Lit: A.G.I. Christie, English Medieval Embroidery, Oxford 1938, p. 178, pl. CXXXIX ff. - D. King, Opus Anglicanum, Exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum 1963, Cat. p. 31. No. 54
Original held at Magdalene College, Cambridge.
Image from: Medieval Embroiderers by Kay Staniland, British Museum Press, 1991, ISBN 0-7141-2051-0, fig. 23
From: Corsair: The Online Research Resource of The Pierpont Morgan Library, Images from Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts MS M.0359, fol. 117r detail. (Last visited 27 Dec 2006.)
Personification of the virtue Charity. Description: "Charity, with pelican and her young in nest on her head, stands in flames and with right hand holds over her breast heart inscribed IH[ESU]S, and in extended left hand sun." Painted on vellum.
Latin name: Pelicanus
Other names: Honocrotalus
A bird that revives its dead young with its own blood
As young pelicans grow, they begin to strike their parents in the face with their beaks. Though the pelican has great love for its young, it strikes back and kills them. After three days, the mother pierces her side or her breast and lets her blood fall on the dead birds, and thus revives them. Some say it is the male pelican that kills the young and revives them with his blood.
Pelicans live in Egypt. There are two kinds: one kind lives on water and eats poisonous animals like crocodiles and lizards; the other kind, with a long neck and beak, makes a sound like an ass when it drinks (this kind is called the onocrotalus). Some say that the two kinds are distinguished by other attributes: the kind that live in water eat fish, while the kind that live on islands eat dirty animals. The pelican has an insatiable hunger, and because its stomach cannot hold food for long, everything it eats is immediately digested.
The pelican is Christ, who humanity struck by committing sin; the pelican cutting open its own breast represents Christ's death on the cross, and the shedding of his blood to revive us. The Aberdeen Bestiary adds that the hunger of the pelican signifies that "...the life of a hermit is modelled on the pelican, in that he lives on bread but does not seek to fill his stomach; he does not live to eat but eats to live."
Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 32r
Museum Meermanno - MMW, 10 B 25 facsimile
Produced: France, c. 1450
Binding: 17th-century vellum
Script: Littera hybrida
Folios: 76 Height: 25.2 cm Width: 18 cm
Manuscript type: Miscellany
Location: Museum Meermanno, Hague, Netherlands
From: Corsair: The Online Research Resource of The Pierpont Morgan Library, Images from Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts MS M.0285, fol. 151r detail. (Last visited 27 Dec 2006.)
Description: "Medallion in right margin: Bird: Pelican in her Piety -- Pelican, with wings extended, stands with her beak to her breast above her two offspring." Grisaille, on vellum.
"L'arbre de vie
Lignum vitae, de saint Bonaventure. Bretagne, seconde moitié du XVe siècle
Paris, BnF, Département des manuscrits, Latin 3473
Les branches et les feuilles de l'arbre, au sommet duquel est disposé
le nid du pélican (qui se perce la poitrine pour nourrir de son sang
ses enfants, symbole de la Passion), permettent le classement, destiné
à leur mémorisation, des 12 articles de la foi, des 12 prophéties
- l'Apocalypse de Jean est mentionnée à la base du tronc), etc."
Flowers is a collection of facsimiles of 16th century needlework books. This particular pattern comes from Esemplario di lavori... by Niccolo Zoppino, called Aristotile.
The Pelican is a symbol of the atonement and the Redeemer. It was supposed to wound itself in order to feed its young with its blood and to bring to life those who were dead -- the "pelicane who stricketh blood out of its owne bodye to do others good" (Lyly, Euphues). Allusion is made to this belief in "Hamlet" (act iv): --
To his good friend thus wide I'll ope my arms And, like the kind, life-rendering pelican, Repast them with my blood.
Therefore it was deemed a fitting symbol of the Saviour, the nostro pelicano of Dante, Who shed His blood in order to give eternal life to the children of men. Skelton in his "Armorie of Birds" says: --
Then sayd the Pellycan:
When my Byrdts be slayne
With my bloude I them revyve.
Scripture doth record
The same dyd our Lord
And rose from deth to lyve.
From: The Oxford Guide to Heraldry by Thomas Woodcock, Somerset Herald, and John Martin Robinson Fitzalan Pursuivant Extraordinary, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988, ISBN 0-19-211658-4, plate X.
From: an article about the herbal's author Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1500-1577). Contained in Herbals & Early Gardening Books from the Doris and Marc Patten Collection at Hayden Library's Special Collections Department of Arizona State University Tempe, Arizona USA. (Last visited 27 Dec 2006.)
Note: only the lower bird in this work is a pelican.
"On the medieval roof of the nave is a carved pelican, the 'Pelican in its Piety'. It is a symbol of Christ. Various Fathers of the Church, including St Augustine of Hippo, interpreted Psalm 102 verse 6 as referring to Christ. They understood his suffering and death alone on the cross as being foreshadowed by the psalmist's cry: "I am like a pelican in the wilderness." Ancient bird lore, perhaps through misunderstanding the way that pelicans regurgitate food for their young, thought that the pelican feeds her chicks with her own blood. So Christ, who in the Eucharist feeds his people with his own blood, shed on the cross, is doubly likened to the pelican..."
Attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. "The Pelican pendant on her breast symbolizes charity and redemption. It represents the queen's selfless love of her subjects." -- From Portraits of Queen Elizabeth (Last visited 27 Dec 2006.)
Creatures in Zoology by John Ashton
Includes quote from Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas (1544-July 1590), French epic poet: "...singing of 'Charitable birds,' praises equally the Stork and the Pelican:—"
The Stork, still eyeing her deer Thessalie,
The Pelican comforteth cheerfully: Prayse-worthy Payer;
which pure examples yield Of faithfull Father, and Officious Childe:
Th’ one quites (in time) her Parents love exceeding,
From whom shee had her birth and tender breeding;
Not onely brooding under her warm brest
Their age-chill’d bodies bed-rid in the nest;
Nor only bearing them upon her back
Through th’ empty Aire, when their own wings they lack;
But also, sparing (This let Children note)
Her daintiest food from her own hungry throat,
To feed at home her feeble Parents, held
From forraging, with heavy Gyves of Eld.
The other, kindly, for her tender Brood
Tears her own bowells, trilleth-out her blood,
To heal her young, and in a wondrous sort,
Unto her Children doth her life transport:
For finding them by som fell Serpent slain,
She rends her brest, and doth upon them rain
Her vitall humour; whence recovering heat,
They by her death, another life do get.
"Instruments de la Passion
Bréviaire de Martin d'Aragon
Espagne, Catalogne, XIVe-XVe siècles
Paris, BNF, département des Manuscrits, Rothschild 2529, fol. 215
Cette peinture présentant les symboles de la Passion du Christ, ... entre le pélican se sacrifiant pour ses petits ..."
"Plate with Pelican [Netherlandish (Dinant or Malines)] (64.101.1498)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bnpr/ho_64.101.1498.htm (October 2006) (Last visited: 12 Dec 2008)
Netherlandish (Dinant or Malines)
Brass, beaten; Diam. 20 in. (50.8 cm)
Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1964 (64.101.1498)
The motif of the pelican piercing its breast to feed its young with its blood became a popular symbol of the sacrifice of Christ during the late medieval and early Renaissance period. Represented in the middle of this plate with three of its young, the elegantly formed bird directs its beak toward its own breast in a charitable gesture of self-sacrifice. The design of this plate was executed through the traditional, painstaking method of brass beating. Certain motifs, like the pelican here, were repeated almost without variation for more efficient production, though the encircling motifs often varied from plate to plate, becoming more complex in many of the late fifteenth-century examples. Here, the central motif is surrounded by a circular design of grapes, intertwined with tendrils and vines. Many such plates were produced in Dinant, a French-speaking town in the Low Countries, which was the center of a flourishing metalworking trade. The city's importance is reflected in the generic term dinanderie, which has come to be associated with metalwork of this sort. Decorative plates were proudly displayed on sideboards, served as chargers on which food was brought to the table, and sometimes used in the liturgy. The imagery of this plate -- the combination of the pelican and the grapes, in particular -- suggests it had religious, and possibly Eucharistic, associations. Though such plates were highly popular, the appeal of mass production eventually led to a decline in quality, and by the sixteenth century this method was replaced by the easier process of casting.
(Discovered on the Web and contributed to this site by (SCA) Rafaella d'Allemtejo.)
From: Les singuliers et nouveaux pourtraicts, du Seigneur Federic de Vinciolo Venitien, pour toutes sortes d'ouvrages de Lingerie. / Dedie a la royne, Douairiere de France. / Derechef et pour la troisiesme fois augmentez, outre le reseau premier et le point couppé et lacis, de plusieurs beaux et differens portrais de reseau de point coté, avec le nobre des mailles, chose non encor' venuë ny inventée. / A Paris / Pour Jean le Clerc, ruë S. Jean de Latran, à la Salemandre Royalle. / Avec Privilege du Roy. / 1606
Translation: The Unusual and New Designs, by Signor Frederico (de) Vinciolo, Venetian, for all sorts of needlework. / Dedicated to the Dowager Queen of France. / To which have again and for the third time been added - over and above the primary network, point coupé; and lacis, several beautiful and different designs for network with counted stitches, giving the number of meshes, something never before seen or invented. / Paris, for Jean Leclerc, rue St.-Jean de Latran, at the sign of the Royal Salamander. / With the King's license. / 1606
point coupé = cutwork in geometric designs
lacis = darned netting
A number of editions of the original pattern-book were published between 1587 and 1658. This version is based on a 1606 printing of the third edition, the first printing of which was in 1587.
Images and translation of title from: Renaissance Patterns for Lace, Embroidery and Needlepoint -- An Unabridged Facsimile of the 'Singuliers et nouveaux pourtraicts' of 1587 by Federico Vinciolo, Dover Publications, New York, 1971, pg 11, pg 86.
From: New Modelbuch Darinnen allerley kunstliche Virsirung und Müster artiger Zuege und schöner Blummen zu zierlichen Ueberschlagen, Haupt Schurtz Schnuptüchern Hauben Handschuhen, Uhren (?) ghenzen, Kampfüttern und dergleighen auf Muhler naht und Seidenstucker arbeit gantz Kunstlich gemahlt und vorgerissen, dergleichen sie bevorn noch nie in Druck ausgegangen. 16 Leipzicht 19. / Inn Verlegung Henning Grosseren, de Jungeren / Andreas Betschneider Mahller.
Translation: New Pattern-book, in which all sorts of artistic ornamentations and patterns of pretty stuffs and beautiful flowers for covers for Head, Aprons, and Picket-handkerchiefs, Caps, Gloves, Clock cases, Comb Cases, and such like, artistically sketched from painter and silk embroiderer's work, and which have never before gone out of print.
From: Images from facsimile published by Kathryn Goodwyn (C. Kathryn Newell). Title and translation from History of Lace by Mrs. Bury Palliser, Dover Publications, New York, Fourth Edition originally published 1911, ISBN 0-486-24742-2, pg. 43, 44.
and Albert Museum, Museum no. T.69-1936
Museum Label: "Decorated baskets were often given as christening presents or as wedding presents. Most surviving baskets depict a couple, sometimes a king and queen, or Adam and Eve. They were made by women and teenage girls at home and demonstrated great needleworking skill.
Glass beads on linen thread and fine wire, lined with silk.
Made in England; set with the maker or recipent's name."
Victoria and Albert Museum, Museum no. 443-1865. The pattern drawer probably used English prints as the source for the background images on this cushion, including this pelican.
From: De ouderliefde van de pelikaan (The Parental Love of the Pelican) by Hans Brandhorst from Museum Meermano in Netherlands (Last visited 7 Jan 2007)
England, about 1675
Berne, Institute für angewandte Kunst, Abegg-Stiftung, Riggisberg
175x346 cm. Each rectangle: 25 x 19 cm
Rectangles containing bunches of flowers alternate with rectangles containing trees and animals, in part with symbolic or emblematic significance. Blue wollen twill embroidered with wool in red, green, yellow, blue and brown tones. Long and short stitch. The designs are derived from embroidery pattern books, and works on natural history and emblems.
From: A Pictorial History of Embroidery by Marie Schuette and Sigrid Müller-Christensen, Thames and Hudson, 1964, Fig 414 (detail of Fig 413)
From: Portugal and the East through Embroidery: 16th to 18th century coverlets
from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon. Washington, DC: International
Exhibitions Foundation, 1981. ISBN: 0-88397-038-4. Fig. 9. Contributed to
this page by Friday Valentine (SCA: Rafaella d'Allemtejo).
The entire coverlet (925k)
Line drawing of the pelican (147k) from the title page (unfortunately, without her chicks and missing the wound in her breast)
9. COVERLET, Indo-Portugese, 18th Century
White cotton embroidered in purple, green, red and yellow silk. Chain stitch and French Knot stitch. The design may be considered a late variation of the band pattern. In the center, a pelican and in the corners, double-headed eagles and lions. Field and border also show interlaced foliage decoration and stylized flora.
From: Gaukler Medieval Wares
From: Gaukler Medieval Wares
A pewter pilgrim's badge.
A pewter pilgrim's badge. (Retrieved Feb 2002.)
Bill Dawson, Metalsmith
(Last visited 27 Dec 2006.)
From: Bill Dawson, Metalsmith
(No longer available. Retrieved 15 Feb 2002.)
From: Bill Dawson, Metalsmith
(No longer available. Retrieved 15 Feb 2002.)
History of Lace by Mrs. Bury Palliser, Dover, New York, Fourth Edition
originally published 1911, ISBN 0-486-24742-2, pg 19
Mrs. Palliser's version of pattern from "Singuliers et nouveaux pourtraicts" by Federico Vinciolo (1588 version).
From: The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable Based on the original book of Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, Wordsworth Editions Ltd, Hertfordshire, 1993. ISBN 1-85326-300-1
Pelican. In Christian art, a symbol of charity; also an emblem of Jesus Christ, by "whose blood we are healed". St. Jerome gives the story of the pelican restoring its young ones destroyed by serpents, and his own salvation by the blood of Christ. The popular fallacy that pelicans feed their young with their blood arose from the fact that the parent bird transfers macerated food from the large bag under its bill to its young. The correct term for the heraldic representation of the bird in this act is a pelican in her piety, piety having the classical meaning of filial devotion.
The mediæval Bestiary tells us that the pelican is very fond of its brood, but, when they grow, they often rebel against the male bird and provoke his anger, so that he kills them; the mother returns to the nest in three days, sits on the dead birds, pours her blood over them, revives them, and they feed on her blood.
Then sayd the Pellycane,
When my byrdis be slayne
With my bloude I them reuyue (revive),
Scripture doth record
The same dyd our Lord,
And rose from death to lyue.
Skelton: Armoury of Birds
gleaned from the Internet here.]
Image identified as being from: Basic Heraldry by Stephen Friar and
John Ferguson, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1993, ISBN 0-393-03463-1.
The Pelican, with its curious heraldic representation and its strange terms, may almost be considered an instance of the application of the existing name of a bird to an entirely fanciful creation. Mr. G. W. Eve, in his "Decorative Heraldry," states that in early representations of the bird it was depicted in a more naturalistic form, but I confess I have not myself met with such an ancient representation.
Heraldically, it has been practically always depicted with the head and body of an eagle, with wings elevated and with the neck embowed, pecking with its beak at its breast. The term for this is "vulning itself," and although it appears to be necessary always to describe it in the blazon as "vulning itself," it will never be met with save in this position; a pelican's head even, when erased at the neck, being always so represented. It is supposed to be pecking at its breast to provide drops of blood as nourishment for its young, and it is termed "in its piety" when depicted standing in its nest and with its brood of young . It is difficult to imagine how the pelican came to be considered as always existing in this position, because there is nothing in the nature of a natural habit from which this could be derived. There are, however, other birds which, during the brooding season, lose their feathers upon the breast, and some which grow red feathers there, and it is doubtless from this that the idea originated.
In heraldic and ecclesiastical symbolism the pelican has acquired a somewhat sacred character as typical of maternal solicitude. It will never be found "close," or in any other positions than with the wings endorsed and either elevated or inverted.
When blazoned "proper," it is always given the colour and plumage of the eagle, and not its natural colour of white. In recent years, however, a tendency has rather made itself manifest to give the pelican its natural and more ungainly appearance, and its curious pouched beak.
From: The Wordsworth Complete Guide to Heraldry aka A Complete Guide to Heraldry by A. C. Fox-Davies, Wordsworth Editions Ltd, Hertfordshire, 1996, ISBN 1-85326-365-6. Reprint of original published in 1925.
Corpus Christi College in Cambridge was founded in 1351 by the two Guilds of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin, and the arms confirmed to them at the Visitation of Cambridge in 1575 were a quarterly coat, first and fourth Gules a pelican in her piety upon a Nest containing three young all argent, and second and third Azure three Lilies argent.
Coll. Arms MS. G.18, f. 59.
From: The Heraldic Imagination by Rodney Dennys, Clarkson N. Potter Inc., New York, 1975, pg 103-4.
The Heraldic Imagination by Rodney Dennys, Clarkson N. Potter Inc.,
New York, 1975, pg 103-4.
Note: This illustration appears at the end of the chapter Eagles and Fabulous Birds without any accompanying information.
Pelican The heraldic pelican is transformed from the clumsy natural bird into one of great beauty and religious significance. It is sometimes depicted like an eagle, and sometimes more like a swan, and although it always has a much longer beak than either of these two birds, this is much more slender and graceful than that of the real bird.
It was once believed that although pelicans were extremely devoted to their young, these would rebel against their father and provoke his anger, whereupon he would strike back and kill them. Three days later the mother bird would return to the nest, and piercing her own breast would bring them back to life by pouring her blood on them. Thus the pelican became the mystic emblem of Christ, whose blood was shed for mankind. It is the symbol of charity, love and piety.
There are armorial terms which apply only to the pelican who is depicted with her wings raised, her neck embowed, pecking at her own breast, from which drops of blood are falling. In this posture the bird is blazoned as 'vulning herself'. But if she is standing on her nest and nourishing her babies with her blood she is described as being 'in her piety'.
The pelican is used quite frequently in armory both in the arms and as the crest. Its association with Christ makes it a particularly appropriate charge in the arms of the two colleges of Corpus Christi, one at Oxford and the other at Cambridge. At Oxford the shield is divided into three and on the dexter part is a pelican vulning herself. At Cambridge the shield is quartered, the first and fourth quarters bearing a pelican in her piety for Christ.
From: A Dictionary of Heraldry Edited by Stephen Friar (with illustrations by John Ferguson, Andrew Jamieson, and Anthony Wood), Harmony Books, New York, 1987, ISBN 0-517-5665-6, pg 266.
image from the Info Louisiana website. (Now defunct. Retrieved 11
This image from the Info Louisiana website. (Now defunct. Retrieved 11 Feb 1999)
Another version of the state seal can be seen on the louisiana.gov website. (Last visited 27 Dec 2006.)
From: The Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center (No longer available. Retrieved 15 Feb 2002.)
From: Southern University at New Orleans (No longer available. Retrieved 15 Feb 2002)
From: Wood Engraving -- An Art Lost and Found, Kent Kessinger. (Last visited 27 Dec 2006.)
From: Avenue France - Culture
Probably a modern depiction of the badge of Marie de Medici, second wife
of Henry IV.
Motto on gold banner below nest reads "Tegit virtue minores" (By his courage he protects his children)
From: ChristStory Bestiary - Pelican (Last Visited 7 Jan 2007.)
This bird exemplifies the sacrificial love of a parent for its offspring. The mother pelican's habit of reaching into her pouch to extract food for her young led to some misunderstanding amongst early peoples. They believed that the parent bird was tearing open its breast to feed its babies on its own blood.
Legends abound in which the father pelican revives his deceased young by tearing open his heart and drenching them with his life's blood. In some, the mother inadvertently smothers the children with her abundant caresses. In others, the babies die of weakness, are killed by snakes, or treat the father so insolently that he murders them in a rage. In each case, the father, seeing that his children are dead, mourns them loudly for three days and then revives them at the cost of his own life. The resurrected young awake full of health and goodness. These legends serve as allegories for the resurrection of mankind in Christ and the purifying sacrifice of blood and water which flowed from the wound in His side [Jn 19:31-37]. Inspired by these legends, Thomas Aquinas wrote, "Pelican of mercy, Jesu, Lord and God, cleanse me, wretched sinner, in thy precious Blood; Blood, whereof one drop for humankind outpoured, might from all transgression have the world restored." During the Middle Ages, many artists placed a pelican with its nest on top of the cross.
St. Gertrude had a vision of Christ in the form of a pelican feeding humankind with His blood. Her vision has Eucharistic connotations. Jesus told His astonished followers, "Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life..." [Jn 6:54]
Until the 18th century, the Christ-pelican was almost always portrayed piercing itself on the right side of its breast. This imagery was drawn from a vague interpretation of Ezekiel's prophecy, "...the water (Christ's blood and water) was flowing from under the right side of the temple (Christ's body)... and it shall be that every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live..." [Ezek 47:1 & 9]. Later, Freemasonry would use a pelican piercing its left side as a symbol of the self-sacrifice required of its members. Many artists and craftsmen were unaware of the significance of the right side of the breast and the pelican of the Free Masons began appearing in Christian art and churches.
Just as Christ's sacrifice was the ultimate act of charity, so too, is the pelican's gift of life to its undeserving young an emblem of this Christian virtue which is ever ready to lay down its life for a friend or the sheep. [Jn 10:11 & 15, 15:12-13] Its antithesis is the vampire (representative of the heretic) who prolongs his own life by taking blood (eternal life) from its victims.
In the Bible, the destruction and utter desolation of nations is summed up by saying that the pelican, along with other wild beasts and birds, shall dwell in their place. [Isa 34:11; Zep 2:14] Through the psalmist, Christ also called Himself "a pelican of the wilderness." [Psa 102:6] This phrase refers to His rejection by His people and abandonment by His followers during His Passion. [Mt 26:56; Lk 55-62; Mk 14:50-52] The "pelican of the wilderness" has also been associated with Christ's fast in the wilderness after His baptism in the River Jordan. [Mt 4:1-11]
Another pelican myth is that it would eat only the smallest amount of food necessary to maintain life. It therefore became symbolic of those who fast and/or strive for spiritual purification.
All scripture quotes are from the NKJV Bible.
From: Phoenixmasonry Masonic Museum - Illustrated Glossary of Masonic Collecting Terms and Symbolism (Last visited 27 Dec 2006)
The pelican feeding her young with her blood is a prominent symbol of the Eighteenth or Rose Croix Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, and was adopted as such from the fact that the pelican, in ancient Christian art, was considered as the emblem of the Savior. Now this symbolism of the pelican, as a representative of the Savior, is almost universally supposed to be derived from the common belief that the pelican feeds her young with her blood, as the Savior shed his blood for mankind; and hence the bird is always represented as sitting on her nest, and surrounded by her brood of young ones, who are dipping their bills into a wound in their mother's breast. But this is not the exact idea of the symbolism, which really refers to the resurrection, and is, in this point of view, more applicable to Christ, as well as to the Masonic Degree of which the resurrection is a doctrine. In an ancient Bestiarium, or Natural History, in the Royal Library at Brussels, cited by Larwood and Hotten in a recent work on the History of Signboards, this statement is made: "The pelican is very fond of his young ones, and when they are born and begin to grow, they rebel in their nest against their parent, and strike him with their wings flying about him, and beat him so much till they wound him in his eyes. Then the father strikes and kills them. And the mother is of such a nature that she comes back to the nest on the third day, and sits down upon her dead young ones, and opens her side with her bill and pours her blood over them, and so resuscitates them from death; for the young ones, by their instinct, receive the blood as soon as it comes out of the mother, and drink it." Dr. Mackey believed the true theory of the pelican is, that by restoring her young ones to life by her blood, she symbolizes the resurrection. The old symbologists said, that the male pelican, who destroyed his young, represents the serpent, or evil principle, which brought death unto the world; while the mother, who resuscitates them, is the representative of the Son of Man of whom it is declared, "except ye drink of His blood, ye have no life in you." Hence the pelican is very appropriately a symbol of Freemasonry, whose great object it is to teach by symbolism the doctrine of the resurrection, and especially in that sublime Degree of the Scottish Rite wherein, the old Temple being destroyed and the old Word being Lost, a new temple and a new word spring forth -- all of which is but the great allegory of the destruction by death and the resurrection to eternal life.
Masonic Museum - Early
Scottish Rite Tortoise Shell Snuff Box (Last visited 27 Dec 2006)
From: Phoenixmasonry Masonic Museum - Snuff Boxes: Table of Contents (Last visited 27 Dec 2006)
From: Christian Symbols and Glossary who got it from Symbols of the Church, edited by Carroll E. Whittemore with drawings by William Duncan. ICN 407869, 1959, Abingdon Press, Nashville, USA.
Logo from the Pelican History of Art series of books.
From: De ouderliefde van de pelikaan (The Parental Love of the Pelican) by Hans Brandhorst from Museum Meermano in Netherlands (Last visited 7 Jan 2007)
Poster for the blood transfusion service of the Dutch Red Cross.
From: De ouderliefde van de pelikaan (The Parental Love of the Pelican) by Hans Brandhorst from Museum Meermano in Netherlands, (Last visited 7 Jan 2007)
From: A Complete Guide to Heraldry, Section XIV, BIRDS, page 242 by A.C. Fox-Davies. Originally gleaned from the Internet and subsequently tracked to its source (with our thanks) by (SCA) Grimwulf Harland.
For those interested in SCA heraldry, the registered blazons of the pelican badges of the Order of the Pelican are: (Tinctureless) A pelican in its piety and (Tinctureless) A pelican vulning itself.
The Known World Handbook -- Being a compendium of information, traditions
and crafts practiced in these Current Middle Ages in the Society
for Creative Anachronism
Twentieth Year Edition Edited by Mistress Hilary of Serendip, Steward, Society for Creative Anachronism Inc, 1985, pg. 149
Cross-Stitch [Chart for] Pelican Badge
Lady Tamara LaGracieuse de Tours, 1983
THE ORDER OF THE PELICAN:
"Vert, a pelican in her piety proper."
[This design is] scaled so that if the design is executed on 22 count (22 squares to the inch) cloth, the finished [badge] will be two and a half inches in diameter. Of course, if a larger (or smaller) badge is desired the finished size can be calculated by dividing the number of threads to the inch in the fabric into 55. [The] pattern is roughly 55 by 55 squares.
From: The Known World Handbook -- Being a compendium of information,
traditions and crafts practiced in these Current Middle Ages in the Society
for Creative Anachronism
Twentieth Year Edition Edited by Mistress Hilary of Serendip, Steward, Society for Creative Anachronism Inc, 1985
Re-charted by Donna Hrynkiw (SCA: Elizabeth Braidwood)
From: A Pictorial Dictionary of Heraldry As Used in the Society for Creative
by Bruce Draconarius of Mistholme and Akagawa Yoshio, 2nd Edition, 1992, ill. 557
PELICAN -- The pelican is a marine bird, which in medieval legend would revive its dead young with blood from its own breast. Its most common posture is thus blazoned a "pelican in its piety": wings addorsed, piercing its breast with its beak to feed its young [see image]. (The posture is also sometimes blazoned a "pelican vulning itself", particularly if no hatchlings are depicted.)
Period depictions of this bird do not show it as found in nature, with a baggy-bottomed beak, but with a long slender beak resembling that of a stork, and with ruffled feathers.
The pelican was used in the canting arms of Pelham as early as 1418. In Society armory, the pelican is reserved to the Order of Peerage of the same name.
The Order of the Pelican bears: A pelican in its piety.
From: Atlantia Scribes Clip-Art page.
From: Great Northeastern War Contact page. (No longer available. Retrieved 15 Feb 2002.)
From: Lochac Fealty Chains and Peerage Medallions by Kiriel (Last visited 27 Dec 2006)
"My medallion was made from Mastodon ivory (thousands of years old) - found on the beach here in the arctic Alaska branch of the SCA Ynys Taltraeth. It was carved by a friend of mine based on the top image [of this page] two years ago [in 1998]. It appears cracked and fragile, but is quite solid. The Silver chain is the work of Grimr af Vargejum."
Image contributed to this page by Khevron Oktavii Tikhikovich Vorotnikov, O.P. (Oertha, West)
This was a gift from a good friend. I only know that the maker is from one of the eastern kingdoms and is called Genvieve. (Additional information would be appreciated.)
The silver bezel edge was added for me by Maitresse Anne-Marie d'Ailleurs.
Amber pendant belonging to Mistress Elisabeth de Rossignol (An Tir), made by Time Travelling Traders. The image is carved into the back of the pendant, in a process called reverse intaglio. (This particular image doesn't do the pendant justice and a replacement image is planned.)
Medallion belonging to Mistress Arlys o Gordon (An Tir), made by Mistress Fjorleif in Haga in enamel and cloisonne.
Arlys has a small yellow bird ("a tweety bird") on her badge and it was incorporated into her Pelican medallion as the chicks. The blue quatrefoil diapering in the background is also from her badge.
Arlys says: "Both my device and badge use the quatrefoil. [...] The
piece was custom made for
me, as ordered by Dame Regina, and given at my elevation to Pelican. Needless to say, I was utterly blown away!"
Medallion and circlet belonging to Mistress Lenora di Calizzan (An Tir), made by Treasure Cast.
The medallion was purchased from Treasure Cast and one-time permission was obtained to make a mold from it and cast in silver for Lenora's circlet.
Lenora says about her medallion and circlet: "The original medallion was purchased for me by Master Uilliam mac Ailene mhic Seamius and his lady, (now) Mistress Theocharista Irena Diaconia at the time I was elevated. He has the same medallion, and I had admired it openly, so they bought me one when I was elevated. The sterling silver cast for the circlet (and the circlet itself) was made by the Honourable Lady Safiye Konstantiniyye of Lions Gate."
Medallion belonging to Viscountess Regina Romsey (An Tir), made by Mistress Fjorleif in Haga.
Viscountess Regina says "The Pel/Laurel/Viscounty medallion was made by Fjorleif and I love it. I wanted something to put on my great chain that would knock 'em dead, and this certainly is it. For the record the entire piece is a Pel medallion in the center, Laurel around that, and then the 4 pointed (viscounty coronet)."
Master Alail says "It was made by Master Peter of the Golden Isles (Max Engel), a Laurel for armouring and jewelry (and maybe a Pel?) It's a 2" copper medallion of a Laurel wreath with a 3/4" german silver center bearing the etched Pelican. "
Alail calls this his "stealth Pel" as the size of the Pelican part of his medallion is only about the size of a thumbnail.
Medallion belonging to Countess Berengaria de Montfort of Carcassonne (An Tir), made by Mistress Fjorleif in Haga.
A rather tongue-in-cheek depiction of the pelican as she dispatches one of her own young.
Berengaria says "This is one of two; the first one, I passed on to Duchess Elina of Beckenham, now of the Midrealm, on the occasion of her elevation in the West Kingdom."
Medallion belonging to Hrollaugr (Ralg) Njálsson (An Tir), made by Mistress Fjorleif in Haga in the Norse style.
This page created: 8 Feb 1999. Last updated Feb 2007.