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
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