The Iconography of the Pelican


Via Twitter, Lindsay Beyerstein points us to a post in which she discusses the horrific pictures emerging from the Louisiana coast, including one oil-soaked pelican she describes as “crucified.” That brought to mind the Christian symbol of the “pelican in her piety,” which is

a representation of a pelican in the act of wounding her breast in order to nourish her young with her blood  a practice fabulously attributed to the bird. The pelican cutting open its own breast represents Christ’s death on the cross, and the shedding of his blood to revive us and therefore adopted as a symbol of the Redeemer and of charity. An explanation of this is that the pelican’s bill has a crimson red tip and the contrast of this red tip against the white breast probably gave rise to the tradition that the bird tore her own breast to feed her young with her blood.”

The pelican isn’t as well known a symbol as the cross or the loaves and fish, of course. I only found out about it when I stumbled across the picture of a chasuble and was intrigued by the imagery.

But as it happens, the pelican in her piety is part of the state flag of Louisiana, right down to the three drops of blood, mandated by state law. One wonders if their palette will be adjusted from red to brown in the near future.