Why the Pelican .........
The symbolism of the mother Pelican feeding her babies is rooted in an ancient legend that preceded Christianity. In ancient Egypt, the Pelican was associated with death and the afterlife.
The legend is that, after her chicks hatched, the mother would leave the nest to search for food, return and feed the chicks. The chicks are delicate, need to be fed daily, and without food are quickly in danger of starvation and death.
In the time of famine, the mother would wound herself, striking her breast with the beak to feed her young with her blood to prevent starvation. In reviving her young from death, she, in turn, lost her own life.
Given this tradition, we can easily see why early Christians adapted it to symbolize Jesus Christ, our Redeemer.
The image of the Pelican is a strong reminder of our Lord, who suffered and died for us to give us eternal life. We were dead to sin and have found new life through the Blood of Christ. Jesus continues to feed and nourish us on our pilgrim way with the Eucharist.
The Pelican has also been part of Christian art and of our liturgical tradition.
An image of a mother Pelican with her chicks is carved into the top of a column at the Cenale, the upper room on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, where tradition holds that Jesus shared the Last Supper with His Apostles and instituted the Eucharist.
It is the only artwork in the entire room.
In early times, when tabernacles were sometimes suspended over the altar, they were shaped like pelicans. For example, Durham Cathedral, which was attached to a Benedictine monastery before the suppression of all monasteries by Henry VIII in 1538, had the Blessed Sacrament reserved in a tabernacle fashioned in silver lie a Pelican and suspended over the High Altar.
The hymn: “Adore te devote,” written by St. Thomas Aquinas, is one of the five Eucharistic hymns which were composed and set to music for the solemnity of Corpus Christi, instituted in 1264 by Pope Urban IV.
In the sixth verse, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote:
“Lord Jesus, Good Pelican,
clean me, the unclean, with Your Blood,
one drop of which can heal
the entire world of all its sins.”