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The Pelican-in-her-Piety - what's in a name?

The heraldic device of a mother Pelican, plucking at her own breast in order to draw blood for the nurture of her young, is one that spans at least 7 centuries. Many family crests, churches and cathedrals across the Christian world display such an image.

Some medieval bestiaries describe the young as pecking at the paternal bird who, in angry response, strikes back at them, inflicting mortal wounds. The adult bird is so grieved by its actions that it pierces its own breast (known as vulning - hence the word vulnerable) and on the third day he draws blood which, when spilt onto the young, revives them.

The Pelican-in-her-Piety is an allegorical depiction of Jesus Christ, in both His sacrificial love and resurrection. In an age when literacy was limited, the image of the Pelican-in-her-Piety would have been recognisable and understood by everyone who saw it and was, in particular, interpreted as being symbolic of the Eucharist.

Thomas Aquinas used the allegory in his 'Adoro Te Devote'

"O loving Pelican! O Jesu Lord!
Unclean I am but cleanse me in Thy Blood of which a single drop,
for sinners spilt,
can purge the entire world from all its guilt

Modern understanding of the pelican is rather different from that of medieval art, which often depicts a hook beaked, raptor-like bird; we understand that the young, rather than feeding from parental life-blood, are sustained by food regurgitated into the pelican's pouch.

Nevertheless, the Pelican-in-her-Piety, an image of self sacrifice, is as powerful and meaningful today as it was in 13th Century. From great medieval cathedrals to small churches across Europe, and including our own Living History group, the image of the Pelican-in-her-Piety stretches across the centuries.

Bestiary, c.1450, French

Book of Hours Miniature, c. 1470

Book of Hours Miniature, c. 1430
Today's Saints day is :
St Fragan
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on 30/8/2015

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