madonna_pelican_bellini.jpg (70784 bytes)
Madonna of the Meadow - by Giovanni Bellini . . . . The
Pelican, as an Allegorical Interpretation of Christ,  is depicted near
Our Lady's right arm in combat with a
snake, symbolizing Satan


The Physiologus is a Didactic Text written or compiled in Greek by an unknown author, in Alexandria; its composition has been traditionally dated to the second century AD by readers who saw parallels with writings of Clement of Alexandria. The Physiologus consists of descriptions of animals, birds, and fantastic creatures, sometimes stones and plants, provided with Moral Content and giving each an Allegorical Interpretation.

Thus the story is told of the Lion whose cubs are born dead and receive life when the old lion breathes upon them, and of the Phoenix which burns itself to death and rises on the third day from the ashes; both are taken as types of Christ. The Unicorn also which only permits itself to be captured in the lap of a pure virgin is a type of the Incarnation; and lastly the Pelican that sheds its own blood in order to sprinkle therewith its dead young, so that they may live again, is a type of the Salvation of mankind by the Death of Christ on the Cross, which we celebrate this Lenten Season.


The Pelican as a Symbol of Christ's Redemption

from the Catholic Encyclopedia

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A medieval hymn, written by Saint Thomas Aquinas, says:

Holy Pelican, Jesus, Lord,
Cleanse me, who am unclean, with Your blood,
Whose one drop can save the whole world
From all its uncleanness.

The Pelican is said to feed its young with blood from its own breast, if there is no other food available. Jesus is likened to the Pelican, giving us His Body and Blood in Sacramental form. On the painting to the right, blood flows into the Chalice from the Cross and from the breast of the Pelican. The rays of light and the sailing ship (Barque of Peter) both represent Hope given us by the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.

The Pelican is thus a symbol of Atonement and the Redeemer. According to legend, it was supposed to wound itself in order to feed its young with its blood and to bring to life those who were dead -- the "Pelicane who stricketh blood out of its owne bodye to do others good" (John Lyly, Euphues). Also, allusion is made to this belief in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (Act iv): --

    To his good friend thus wide I'll ope my arms
    And, like the kind, life-rendering
    Repast them with my blood.

Therefore it was deemed a fitting symbol of the Savior, the Nostro Pelicano of Dante, Who shed His Blood in order to give Eternal Life to the children of men. Skelton in his "Armorie of Birds" says: --

    Then sayd the Pellycan:
    When my Byrdts be slayne
    With my bloude I them revyve.
    Scripture doth record
    The same dyd our Lord
    And rose from deth to lyve.


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Adoro Te Devote
(13th Century by St Thomas Aquinas)
Sung on the Feast of Corpus Christi


Adoro Te devote, latens Deitas, I adore You devoutly, O hidden God
Quae sub his figuris vere latitas: truly present under these veils:
Tibi se cor meum totum subjicit, my heart subjects itself to You
Quia te contemplans totum deficit. without reserve; for in contemplating
You it feels utterly powerless.

Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur, Sight, touch, and taste are deceived concerning You
Sed auditu solo tuto creditur. But hearing alone suffices to confirm my faith.
Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius, I believe whatever the Son of God has said;
Nil hoc verbo veritatis verius. nothing is more true than this word of Him Who is the Truth.

In cruce latebat sola Deitas, On the Cross Your divinity alone was concealed;
At hic latet simul et humanitas: but here Your humanity also is hidden:
Ambo tamen credens atque confitens, yet believing and confessing both,
Peto quod petivit latro poenitens. I pray for what the penitent thief asked of You.

Plagas sicut Thomas non intueor: I do not see Your wounds, as Thomas did:
Deum tamen meum te confiteor. yet I acknowledge You as my God.
Fac me tibi semper magis credere Increase daily my faith,
In te spem habere, te diligere. my hope, and my love for You.

O memoriale mortis Domini, O memorial of the Lord's death,
Panis vivus vitam praestans homini, living Bread that gives life to us,
Praesta meae menti de te vivere, grant that my soul may live of You,
Et te illi semper dulce sapere. and always taste the sweetness of Your presence.

Pie Pellicane, Jesu Domine, O loving Pelican, Jesus my Lord,
Me immundum munda tuo sanguine: wash away my sins in Your Blood:
Cujus una stilla salvum facere one drop of it can save
Totum mundum quit ab omni scelere. the whole world from all its crimes.

Jesu quem velatum nunc aspicio: Jesus, Whom I now behold under a veil:
Oro, fiat illud quod tam sitio: I beseech You, may this happen which I so desire:
Ut, te revelata cernens facie, may I, beholding You with Your face unveiled,
Visu sim beatus tuae gloriae.


be for ever happy in the vision of Your glory.



bosch pelican.gif (248983 bytes)
Scenes from the Passion of Christ and the Pelican with Her Young - by Hieronymus Bosch
1485. Oil on panel. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin, Germany.


A recent icon of Saint Padre Pio depicts a mother
Pelican feeding her three chicks, a subject dear
to Saint Padre Pio, who dwells on it in letters dealing
with the infinite love of God for His children.