The profound symbolism of an outdated belief

The profound symbolism of an outdated belief

Photo by James A. McBride
An image of a pelican and its offspring is seen in the chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center, Camden. The bird has been used in art as a symbol for Christ because of the myth that it would pierce its own breast to feed its young with its blood.

When I am in New Jersey, I often attend Mass at the chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden. High above the altar, in the center of the church, a pelican watches over the praying congregation. I have noticed this symbol in many other places, from the adoration chapel in the Lateran Basilica in Rome to the lectern in England’s Durham Cathedral.

And while the Saints and Padres are sports teams with robust and obvious connections to Catholic history, perhaps not everyone realizes that the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans are connected to it as well; though through a more circuitous route than their crosstown football siblings.

The basketball Pelicans simply adopted the mascot from the state flag of Louisiana where, like on their Sportsman’s Paradise license plates, the bird is prominently featured. But the reason it’s in these various locales in the first place is because the Catholic immigrants from the Old World and the Caribbean brought with them to New Orleans, and all of America, their devotion to the image which Dante used in Canto XXV of the Paradiso to describe Christ, “our true Pelican” on whose breast the beloved disciple laid at the Last Supper.

Oftentimes the bird is represented in art or sculpture with its young in a nest beneath it, in the act of piercing its own side. Tradition held that in times of famine or distress, the mother pelican would peck her own breast to nourish her young with her own blood.  It is clearly realized today that this action is sheer myth; ornithologists trace the legend to the bird naturally resting its pouched beak against its chest to empty it, sometimes regurgitating food, not bodily fluids, into the chicks’ waiting mouths. Yet, without much basis in zoological fact, the symbolism continues to inspire artists and graphic designers.

A striking secular use of the image is a 1944 World War II blood donation poster from Scotland claiming “your blood can save a life,” while portraying the little cartoon birds suckling from an army helmet. It occurs on some civil veteran memorials as a nod to the ultimate self-sacrifice.

Christians have drawn upon this image frequently and used the pelican for generations as an allusion to the Passion and the Eucharist, whereby the Precious Blood, spilled for a sinful human race, now nourishes God’s people. It gave rise to the phrase “a pelican in her piety,” where pecking itself with outstretched wings the mother bird calls to mind Jesus’s lament in Matthew 23:37: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wing, but you were not willing!”

Christians across denominations realize that in worshipping the Suffering Servant, we assert that “by his stripes we are healed” (cf. Isaiah 53:5). In addition to the many gruesome or (attempted, if Caucasianized) realist depictions of the crucifixion, sometimes a simple bird can display a profound and perhaps life-altering message, if we simply take the time and energy to notice it.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.

Categories: Columns, Growing in Faith

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