Christian iconography encompasses a wide array of symbols that reflect spiritual realities, whose noble significance is made more accessible by earthly images. The Eucharist, font of Ecclesial life, has a prominent place in this assemblage. Among the many Eucharistic representations one is particularly striking: the pelican tearing at its own breast to feed its young.
This symbol comes from an ancient legend that was widely spread by medieval bestiaries, according to which the pelican, when food is scarce, feeds its brood with blood from its breast. This remarkable behaviour led to the association of this bird with Our Lord Jesus Christ, who offers His own Body in the Eucharist to nourish us.
As early as the beginning of the fifth century, St. Jerome made use of this symbolic connotation in his commentary on verse 7 of Psalm 101: “I am become like to a pelican of the wilderness: I am like a night raven in the house.” Centuries later, this inspired one of the most beautiful stanzas of the hymn Adoro te devote, in which St. Thomas Aquinas exclaims: “Pie pellicane, Iesu Domine, me immundum munda tuo sanguine. Cuius una stilla salvum facere totum mundum quit ab omni scelere — Lord Jesus, my Pelican devout, with Thy Blood my sins dismiss, one single drop could surely save from sin this world’s dark edifice.”
The Eucharistic symbolism of this bird is also featured in many works of art, including sculptures, paintings, and even literary texts, such as the Divine Comedy by Dante.
Taken from Heralds of the Gospel Magazine, #174