The strangest Christian symbol ever

Here’s a little curiosity out of church history for your weekend (photo instagrammed this morning in my church).

I’m developing quite the fascination with this image of a blood-letting pelican, I must say. I will be revealing elements of my life if I tell you that I work for an organisation that features it on its crest, which prompted me to question what on earth for, and I have been researching since.

I’ve read that it appears quite frequently on coats of arms and heraldry (as the “Pelican-in-her-Piety”), though I can’t say as I have noticed before. It’s the very strangest thing, harkening back to days medieval and myths of bestiary from the 12th Century.

Apparently, it was once believed that Pelicans were particularly devoted to their young, and that a pelican would pierce her own breast to feed her young her own blood (see the bottom of this wiki). And from there it was (apparently!) a short leap to this bleeding pelican coming to symbolise the passion of Jesus and the Eucharist. This is perhaps owing to an association drawn in Psalm 102 vs 6 where Christ says he is “like a pelican of the wilderness” (though the identity of the birds mentioned there is uncertain, and it also reads as the Psalmist speaking). The website for the Pelican Foundation site of the Anglican church here describes it thus: “The symbolism of the pelican originates from Medieval Europe where the mother pelican’s devotion and attentiveness is to the extent of providing her own blood for her young when no other food is available. Within Christianity this imagery became a symbol of the passion of Jesus and of the Eucharist. The Pelican symbolises Jesus our Redeemer, the One who gives His life for our redemption.”

Thomas Aquinas once wrote a Eucharistic hymn Adoro te devote referring to Christ as the “pelican of mercy” or “good pelican” of “loving pelican”, believe that or not. And in Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act IV, scene V, 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.”

Tell me you didn’t all understand what that meant when you read Hamlet in school? Keats also uses the line “Nurtured like a pelican brood” in Endymion (from here) (though which interpretation he means is not obvious). And if you join the Society for Creative Anachronism, which is a whole other piece of strangeness, they have ‘The Order of the Pelican’.

Of course, it’s a total myth that pelicans have ever engaged in this particular act of parental devotion (and it would be a greater myth if you took the interpretation of infanticide and remorse). The wildlife biologist in me couldn’t help looking that up. I have something of a running gag with one of the Bishops here about this blood-letting pelican, and I consider it part of my duty to offer random pieces of pelican trivia. In conversation some weeks before I was telling this Bishop that I was a wanna-be arts student, even though I have a science degree, and that fed into a later conversation in which I was also saying that I can appreciate a little symbolism and that we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater on all Christian symbolism. But then later, after a conversation about bleeding pelicans, when I told him that it was a myth that pelicans ever behaved in this way, he says “now you’re being the scientist – you need to go back to being the arts student and run with the symbolism”. Fair enough. I’m not one to let the facts get in the way of a good metaphor, or a good stained glass window (plug “pelican in her piety stained glass” into google images and see what you get).

So now you know.


  • This is the most interesting thing I've read all day! I'm glad you found out all the context and meaning; when I saw the photo on instagram I was intrigued but didn't explore further 🙂

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