Sacred Symbols: The Pelican

The pelican may seem an unlikely candidate to represent a deity. It doesn’t soar like the high-flying eagle nor does it symbolize peace like the mild-mannered dove. Nonetheless, thanks to some ancient beliefs about the pelican’s behavior with its young, the ungainly bird began a long association with Christianity at some point in the second century when an anonymous author wrote the Physiologus. Shortly thereafter, writes Charbonneau-Lassay in The Bestiary of Christ, North African potters were decorating lamps with scenes of a pelican and its chicks as a symbol for Christ and the church.

Symbolic pelican imagery is surprisingly common in American churches (photos 1 – 3 below).  Like the eagle (see Sacred Symbols: The Eagle, the post for August 2, 2014), this bird with a large beak and vast wing span shows up in the stained glass and sculpture of many Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. Its meaning, however, is somewhat obscure and may escape many modern observers. In this post we’ll briefly trace the pelican’s career as a sacred symbol as we visit two museums, a Belgian cathedral, and churches in Princeton, NJ, Chicago, IL, Iowa City, IA, and Washington, DC.

1. Pelican & Chicks, Princeton University Chapel, NJ

1. Pelican & Chicks Sculpture, Princeton University Chapel, NJ

2. Pelican in Vaulting Boss, 4th Presbyterian Church, Chicago, IL

2. Pelican & Chicks in Vaulting Boss, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, IL (click to enlarge)

Pelican & Chicks, St. Wenceslaus Church, Iowa City, IA

3. Pelican & Chicks, early 20th Century Stained Glass, St. Wenceslaus Church, Iowa City, IA

Pelican as a Symbol of Christ   One legend has it that pelicans revived their lifeless chicks by sprinkling blood on them. The father or mother pelican accomplished this by using its sharp beak to pierce its breast, and then sprinkled the blood from the wound on its young.  The blood would revitalize the chicks. The unknown author of the Physiologus, a collection of allegorical stories about various animals and birds, used these notions about the pelican to create a metaphor for Jesus Christ as “redeemer” of the world. Charbonneau-Lassay explains that, “like the pelican’s young, the human race is dead to the life of the spirit and soiled by its sins. The Savior poured his blood over humanity, purifying it by his sacrifice, and gave it back true life.” The pelican thus became a “type” for Christ (see Iconography 101: Types, the post for April 16, 2014).

Another version of the pelican legend describes the bird as having the greatest love among the creatures for its young, so much so that it feeds them with its own blood when other food is scarce. In any case, the main point is that people believed that the pelican was willing to wound itself to save its offspring.

This understanding of the pelican’s meaning continued well into the middle ages and inspired painters, metalworkers, and enamelers alike. Images of the pelican and its chicks commonly appear as a symbol for Christ’s sacrifice on processional and altar crucifixes, including these fine examples from Spain and Italy that are on display at the Walters and St. Louis Art Museums. Look for the pelicans near the top of each cross (photos 4 – 7, click to enlarge).

Silver Processional Cross, France, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

4. Processional Cross, Saragossa, Spain; 15th Century; Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

Pelican & Chicks Enamel Inlay on Processional Cross, Walters Art Museum

5. Pelican Symbol Inlay on Processional Cross, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (click to enlarge)

Painted Crucifix, 14th Century Italian, St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO

6. Crucifix with Pelican Symbol, 14th Century Italian, St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO

Pelican & Chicks atop the Crucifix, St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO

7. Pelican Feeding its Chicks, St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO

Pelican as a Symbol for Resurrection    When Honorious of Autun wrote the Speculum Ecclesiae (Mirror of the Church) in the twelfth century, the meaning of the pelican had evolved along lines that made the bird an even more useful symbol for Christian clerics. The pelican, Honorious and others believed, did not merely revive the chicks with her blood, but also that she waited three days to restore them to life. This happy coincidence with the Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on the third day enabled Honorius to assert that the pelican “revives them (the chicks) at the end of three days by opening her breast and sprinkling them with blood, even as on the third day God raised his Son.”

The use of a pair of pelicans in the base of a modern altar at Brussels’ Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula creatively suggests the idea of “raising” as one bird lifts the plate glass altar top on its extended wings (photos 8 & 9). Ferguson wrote in Signs & Symbols in Christian Art that the pelican, through its association with Christ’s sacrifice, also represents the Sacrament of the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper. The pelican altar makes the same point symbolically.

7. Pelican Altar, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

8. Symbolic Pelican Altar, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

8. Pelican Detail, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

9. Pelican Detail, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

Pelican as a Symbol of Self-Sacrifice and Charity  More recently, the pelican has acquired a third symbolic meaning.  According to Charbonneau-Lassey, at some point in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, artists began to associate the pelican with self-sacrifice and charity.  Some placed the pelican alongside allegorical figures representing Caritas, or Charity, in their paintings. Then in the 1700’s, the Freemasons adopted the pelican as a symbol for the virtue of charity.

It is almost certainly in the sense of giving oneself for others that artist Joseph Reynolds, Jr. added a pelican to the “Sacrifice for Freedom” window (photo 10) at the Washington National Cathedral.

Sacrifice for Freedom Window, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

10. Sacrifice for Freedom Window, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC (click to enlarge)

The pelican (photo 11) sets to the right of Agnus Dei, the sacrificial lamb of God, above three lancets with various scenes that exemplify the memorable verse in John’s gospel: “Greater love hath no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends.” One panel in the lower left corner of the larger window commemorates the self-sacrifice of the Four Chaplains. The chaplains—a Jewish rabbi, Roman Catholic priest, and ministers of the Methodist and Reformed faiths—helped soldiers board lifeboats after a German U-boat torpedoed the troop transport Dorchester in 1943. They gave up their own life jackets, said prayers, and led hymns as the ship sank beneath them (photo 12).  The window was installed in the cathedral’s War Memorial Chapel in 1952.

Pelican Roundel, Sacrifice for Freedom Window, Washington National Cathedral

11. Symbolic Pelican Roundel, Sacrifice for Freedom Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

12. Four Chaplains Panel, Sacrifice for Freedom Window, Washington National Cathedral

12. Four Chaplains Panel, Sacrifice for Freedom Stained Glass Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

Finally, it’s worth noting that the pelican sometimes appears in a secular context. Louisiana’s official seal and state flag feature the pelican as a symbol of charity and self-sacrifice as a public virtue (photos 13 & 14). Thus, New Orleans’ professional basketball team is named the Pelicans.

13. Louisiana's Seal, image courtesy of Wikipedia

13. Symbolic Pelican on Louisiana’s Seal, image courtesy of Wikipedia

14. Flag of Louisiana, image courtesy of Wikipedia

14. Symbolic Pelican on Louisiana’s State Flag, image courtesy of Wikipedia

Mike Klug, mikejklug@aol.com, 8/27/14

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Sacred Symbols: The Eagle

As “king of the birds,” the eagle has been associated with political power since antiquity. It has served as the emblem for Russian czars, German kaisers, American presidents, and countless rulers of long-forgotten nation states and empires. In this post we’ll briefly survey the symbolic meanings and historical associations of the eagle as we view eight images that contain it.

Eagle as a Gospel Symbol  My last post about the Four Evangelists described how the eagle is widely seen as a symbol for St. John’s gospel. This connection between the eagle and John dates to Christianity’s early days, and was a popular subject for stained glass artists and sculptors in the middle ages. The eagle appears at least three times at Chartres Cathedral to signify St. John, including in a stained glass medallion embedded within the West Rose (photos 1 and 2). The association between the fabled raptor and St. John continues in our time and is common in the art of modern churches (photos 3 and 4).

1. St. John's Eagle (below) and Abraham Rocking Souls in His Bosom, West Rose, Chartres Cathedral, France

1. St. John’s Eagle Symbol and Abraham Rocking Souls in His Bosom (above), West Rose Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

2. West Rose & Lancets, Chartres Cathedral, France

2. West Rose Window & Lancets, Chartres Cathedral, France (click to enlarge)

2. Eagle, Symbol for St. John, Trinity Cathedral, Davenport, Iowa

3. Eagle Symbol for St. John, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Davenport, Iowa

3. St. John with Eagle, Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC

4. St. John with Eagle, Our Mother of Africa Chapel, Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC (click to enlarge)

Along with the connection to John’s gospel, medieval scholars ascribed several other meanings to the eagle that are less familiar to most modern observers. The twelfth century understanding of the eagle was based in large part on an anonymous second century work called the Physiologus (the Naturalist) that was translated into Latin and circulated widely in medieval Europe. The Physiologus combined accepted “facts” about various creatures (often based on dubious science) with interpretive stories about them drawn from Biblical texts. The Physiologus provided source material for fables, bestiaries, and even sermons. These in turn gave inspiration to medieval artists from different backgrounds (photo 5).

 

2. Eagle Fibulae (clasps for robes), 6th Century

5. Eagle Fibulae (cloak fasteners), 6th Century Visigoth, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Eagle as a Symbol of Christ  Honorius of Autun, a twelfth century theologian, saw in the eagle a symbol for Christ’s Ascension. According to Emile Male in the The Gothic Image, Honorius’ sermon for the feast of the Ascension made the point that, “The eagle is of all creatures that which flies highest and alone dares to gaze straight into the sun…. Even so did Christ ascend into Heaven higher up than all the saints to his place on the right hand of the Father.”  Perhaps the ivory carving on the head of a crozier, with an eagle standing on a book and confronting an “evil” serpent, derives from this symbolic link between the eagle and Christ, the mystical “Logos,” or Word, of whom St. John wrote (photo 6).

3. Crozier with Eagle and Serpent, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

6. Crozier with Eagle, 13th Century, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (click to enlarge)

Eagle as a Resurrection Symbol  Rabanus Maurus, writing in the ninth century, saw the eagle as a symbol for the Christian way of life. He wrote that the Christian must be as the eagle that flies upward looking straight into the sun, and so with eyes focused heavenward “contemplates the things of eternity.”  For others, the eagle was a symbol for renewal or resurrection. This line of thinking goes back at least to pre-Christian Syria where tombs depict eagles leading souls of the deceased to heaven.  It was thought that when eagles singe their feathers by approaching the sun that they could restore their plumage by plunging into water. A verse in Psalm 103, written hundreds of years before Christ, reinforced this view. The psalmist wrote, “Bless the Lord…who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

6. Eagle Lectern, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

7. Symbolic Eagle Lectern, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

7. Eagle Lectern, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids, MI

8. Symbolic Eagle Lectern, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids, MI

Eagle as a Symbol of God’s Power  One of my favorite eagle meanings hearkens back to the bird’s association with royal power. According to The Encyclopedia of Religion, the Romans expressed the divinity of their emperors through eagle symbolism. After the fourth century, Christians adopted the eagle as a symbol for the transformative power of the divine word. That’s why lecterns–where scripture is read to the congregation–are often cast in the form of an eagle. The great bird’s presence suggests that the Word of God has the power to lift the soul to spiritual heights, just as the eagle soars effortlessly and ever higher on an invisible updraft likened to the breath of God (photos 7 & 8, above).

Mike Klug, 08/02/2014, mikejklug@aol.com