"The Pelican in Her Piety"
(St. Nicholas Church, Oakley, Suffolk, England)
Copyright © Edward Riojas
One of the strangest symbols for Christ is “The Pelican in Her Piety.” There are all kinds of symbols set aside for identifying Christ Jesus – crosses, fish, rocks, cornerstones, monograms, etc. – but for some reason, that pelican has shown up in stained glass for hundreds of years. Even the church of my youth had a window with the symbol on it.
Technically, however, the symbol is wrong. Along with a handful of other images that emerged during the Middle Ages, it is based on wives' tales, legend, and, in this case, a rather inept knowledge of ornithology.
Whether it was an artist or Church father, the originator of the pelican image attempted to explain, by means of analogy, the nature and saving work of Jesus Christ. Using the stuff of a broken world to explain Christ is bound to end up falling off the tracks.
The explanation of the symbol is that, in dire times, a female pelican will pierce her own breast to save her nestling brood. It’s a no-brainer as far as the link between a bird’s saving act and the saving act of the King of all creation. But that is a big assumption for a bird. In reality, if things got dire in bird-dom, the brood would get shoved out of the nest to die. Pelicans aren’t sacrificial; they are self-serving.
On the other hand, Jesus did use a bird to describe Himself. In grieving over an unbelieving Jerusalem, He laments, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Matthew 23:37. We must thank the Church fathers for not rushing to a chicken for the symbol of our Lord, but I digress.
Even in title, “The Pelican in Her Piety” is a little odd. Piety, however, does not here denote devoutness or reverence. Rather, it pulls from its original meaning of having “duty.” This is most significant, for in His love for His own, Christ Jesus was duty-bound to the lost and sinful and perishing. Our piety, by contrast, is negligible.