Sunday, 20 May 2012

The pelican in her piety

The pelican in her piety is another of those medieval symbols that needs to be 'read'. I got introduced to it in Norwich Cathedral - there are several good examples there.

The first thing you need to know is that the pelican doesn't always look much like a pelican (except in Victorian medievalising work. The Victorians had good pelicans to copy from, notably those in St James's Park). The pelican quite often looks more like an eagle. In fact, that's logical, since the pelican is pecking her breast to feed her fledglings on her own blood. It would be difficult for a real pelican to do that - but easy for a bird of prey, with a more rapacious, hooked beak.

Secondly, the pelican is usually sitting on her nest, with her chicks around her. You'll see her pecking her breast, and if she's in colour you will see the drops of blood. She is a self-sacrificing parent, ready to hurt herself so that her chicks can live.

That makes her a symbol of Christ atoning for the sins of the world. Her blood is Christ's blood, shed for mankind. In the hymn 'Adoro te devote', Thomas Aquinas calls Christ 'the loving pelican', before asking to be cleansed in his blood. The pelican also crops up in bestiaries, never the most accurate naturalist texts but extremely useful for explaining medieval symbology.  The pelican can also, more generally, represent the virtue of charity.

You may find pelicans on the arms of colleges (both Cambridge and Oxford colleges of Corpus Christi, to which the pelican, as a sign of the Body of Christ, is obviously relevant), and occasionally on pubs. But they're more often to be found in ecclesiastical contexts (of course, the colleges originally were religious institutions); on bench ends at Swavesey church, Cambridgeshire, and Hexham Abbey; on the lectern of Norwich cathedral (without the chicks); on roof bosses (Norwich, again, Widdecombe church, Southwark cathedral).

Think the pelican lectern in Norwich cathedral is actually an eagle? Take a better look, and you can see the blood swelling out of the wound the bird has made with its beak. And there's another little pelican on one spandrel of the west door.

The Victorians loved the pelican - it was one of the symbols that got picked up in the Gothic revival and by the Oxford Movement at the same time - and you will see Victorian pelicans all over the place; on tombstones, for example, and on tiles, and in stained glass, where the subject often neatly fits a roundel.

Other birds and beasts have their meanings too - dogs, for instance, often symbolise fidelity, so female effigies which have a little lapdog under their feet on medieval tombs aren't naturalistic portraits of a lady with a pet dog, but praising her faithfulness.Not all animals have simple meanings - the lion may appear as a symbol of strength and fortitude, but may also appear as a devouring beast; in Italy, the columns of Romanesque church porches are often supported by lions which maul or chew on human bodies, symbols of the carnivorous, bestial appetite which must be resisted and overcome. (Or, of course, a lion might appear in other contexts; with wings, he is the symbol of St Mark, or of Venice; four lions sitting around or under a young man generally show Daniel in the lions' den. It all depends on the context.)

You don't need to know these meanings to be able to see a Gothic cathedral and appreciate its architecture, of course, nor to appreciate the beauty of a page of illuminated manuscript. But to see the cathedral as it was intended, as a sort of encyclopaedia of God's creation, with every created thing in its place, and to see it as a construct of meaning, as well as stone, you need to be able to read it - and that means learning the alphabet of symbols, of which the pelican is just one part.

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