20 October 2014

The Pelican in her Piety

At St Mary Magdalene’s we have a decorative screen behind the High Altar called a Reredos (REER-rar-DOSS). As is common with such screens, it is decorated with many religious symbols and artworks.

On the top left of the reredos is a small square panel showing a pelican and her young. The pelican has two chicks with her and she is shown piercing her breast with her beak until the blood flows. The chicks feed and are sustained by her blood. The imagery comes from mediaeval times when it was believed that the pelican was an exceptionally devoted parent and would tend her chicks this way if food was scarce.

At first this might seem an obscure choice for a religious ornament, but the pelican is a very old symbol in Christianity and in this form is called “The Pelican in her Piety”. 

The Pelican in her Piety is a way of reminding us of Jesus who gave his life blood to sustain us. It is a tender image of selfless love and sacrifice. The Pelican in her Piety is also a symbol of Holy Communion, where the faithful receive Jesus’ blood and spiritual sustenance.

Photo by Stephanie Edwards

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
We find protection under the shadow of your wings.
- Psalm 36

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