The Medieval Pelican

The pelican of the Middle Ages was thought to pierce herself in her breast in order to feed her blood to her young. Alternate stories tell of how the pelican would kill her young in a fit of pique, and then pierce her breast in later remorse. The blood thus brought forth, falling on the dead chicks, brought them back to life.

Generally, depictions of the pelican are meant to indicate Christ the Saviour who shed his blood in a like manner.

In medieval heraldry, a pelican is an eagle-beaked bird always shown plucking at her breast. If shown alone she is blazoned (described in heraldic terms) as "vulning herself". If the young are shown with the parent, she is blazoned as "a pelican in her piety".

Note: My interest in the depiction of the medieval pelican stems from my membership in the Order of the Pelican, an aspect of the Society for Creative Anachronism. I also maintain interests in SCA heraldry, medieval heraldry, needlework, and very old needlework pattern books. Most of the examples below come from sources in these areas. -- Donna Hrynkiw (SCA: Elizabeth Braidwood)

From: an address given at Barry University, Florida, about a pelican statue found there

The pelican is indeed an ancient symbol in the Church, its symbolic meaning originating in the Bible, Psalm 102, where the Psalmist says: "I am like a pelican of the wilderness."

This reference (even though it was probably a mistranslation for a hawk or cormorant) gave rise to a number of legends and allegorical interpretations in the Middle Ages.

Because of the way that the pelican feeds its young, many who observed this bird believed that the pelican pierced its own breast to feed its offspring. It has stood as a symbol of self-sacrifice and nurturing for centuries.

The Physiologus, a second century work of a popular theological type, described animals both real and imaginary and gave each an allegorical interpretation. It told of the pelican drawing the blood from its own breast to feed its young. The physical reality which probably resulted in this legend is that the long beak of the pelican has a sack or pouch which serves as a container for the small fish that it feeds its young. In the process of feeding them, the bird presses the sack back against its neck in such a way that it seems to open its breast with its bill. The reddish tinge of its breast plumage and the redness of the tip of its beak prompted the legend that it actually drew blood from its own breast.

The Physiologus, and later Latin Bestiaries of the Middle Ages, found the action of the pelican, so interpreted, as a particularly appropriate symbol of the sacrifice of Christ the Redeemer shedding His blood, and thus the symbol of the pelican grew to have a wide usage in Christian literature and art. Thomas Aquinas did indeed use the figure of the pelican in his beautiful hymn appointed to be sung in Thanksgiving after Communion, the Adoro Te Devote:

"Pie Pellicane, Jesu Domine,
Me immundum munda Tuo sanguine.
(verse 3)
O Loving Pelican, O Jesu Lord,
Unclean am I but cleanse me in Thy blood."

We also find a reference in Dante's Paradiso (25.113), and in Act IV, scene V of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Laertes says to the King:

"To his good friends thus wide I'll open my arms;
And like the life-rendering pelican,
Repast them with my blood."

In medieval and baroque art, the pelican is often found as an ornament on altars, chalices, and tabernacle doors. The image of the bleeding mother bird appears frequently on coats of arms in heraldry, including the seal of the State of Louisiana.

Marble arch, probably from the former church of Saint-Cosmus, Narbonne, France, second half of twelfth century.
Cloisters Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1922.

From: The Medieval Menagerie - Animals in the Art of the Middle Ages by Janetta Rebold Benton, Abbeville Press Publishers, New York, 1922, ISBN 1-55859-133-8, pg 22.

The Book of Beasts, a twelfth-century bestiary

The Pelican is excessively devoted to its children. But when these have been born and begin to grow up, they flap their parents in the face with their wings, and the parents, striking back, kill them. Three days afterward the mother pierces her breast, opens her side, and lays herself across her young pouring out her blood over the dead bodies. This brings them to life again.

In the same way, Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the originator and maker of all created things begets us and calls us into being out of nothing. We, on the contrary, strike him in the face. As the prophet Isaiah says: "I have borne children and exalted them and truly they have scorned me." We have struck him in the face by devoting ourselves to the creation rather than the creator.

That was why he ascended into the height of the cross, and, his side having been pierced, there came from it blood and water for our salvation and eternal life.'

The Book of Beasts, T.H. White (translated and edited), New York, 1954, repr. 1984,

c.1185 in the Pierpont Morgan Library
, MS M.81 fol. 61v:


Description "Bestiary: Pelican in her Piety -- One of three pelicans is pecked at breast by two young and on back by two more young. The second pelican holds neck of dead young on ground. The third pelican feeds one young by ejecting blood from its beak into beak of young."

Aberdeen Bestiary
An English bestiary from A.D. 1200


"Illustration: the narrative is divided into three scenes showing the babies attacking their parent, the parents killing the babies and the mother piercing her side to resurrect her offspring. The birds are lively but quite unrealistic. There are both white and Dalmatian pelicans in the southern Mediterranean. They both eat fish but the rest of the account is unrealistic. Possibly the idea of mother pouring sustenance over her babies comes from the birds' habit of regurgitation."

Folio 34V: Source with image of original document page.
De pellicano\ Similis factus sum pellicano solitudi\nis. Pellicanus Egiptiaca avis est, habitans in solitu\dine Nili fluminis unde et nomen sumpsit. Nam Canopos\ Egyptus dicitur. Amatorum est nimis filiorum. Qui cum genuerit\ natos et ceperint crescere, percuciunt parentes suos in faciem.\ Sed parentes repercucientes eos occidunt. Tercia vero die mater\ eorum percuciens costam suam aperit latus suum et incumbit \

Of the pelican

'I am like pelican of the wilderness' (Psalms, 102:6). The pelican is a bird of Egypt, living in the wilderness of the River Nile, from which it gets its name. For Egypt is known as Canopos.

It is devoted to its young. When it gives birth and the young begin to grow, they strike their parents in the face. But their parents, striking back, kill them. On the third day, however, the mother-bird, with a blow to her flank, opens up her side and lies

Folio 35r: Source with image of original document page.
super pullos suos et effundit sanguinem super corpora mor\tuorum, et sic suscitat eos a mortuis. Mistice pellicanus\ significat Christum, Egiptus mundum. Pellicanus habitat in so\litudine, quia Christus solus de virgine dignatus est nasci sine viri\li copulatione. Est autem solitudo pellicani, quod immu\nis est a peccato sic et vita Christi. Hec avis rostro suos pullos oc\cidit, quia verbo predicationis incredulos convertit. Super pullos\ suos flere non desinit, quia Christus cum resuscitaret Lazarum\ misericorditer flevit. Et sic post tres dies sanguine suo pullos vi\vificat, quia Christus proprio sanguine suo redemptos salvat. Mora\liter autem per pellicanum intelligere possumus non quemlibet iu\stum, sed a carnali voluptate longe remotum. Per Egyptum, vi\tam nostram ignorantie tenebris involutam. Egyptus enim\ tenebre interpretatur. In Egipto igitur solitudinem facimus, dum\ a curis et voluptatibus seculi longe sumus. Sic et iustus in civi\tate solitudinem facit, dum immunem se in quantum huma\na fragilitas patitur a peccato custodit. Rostro pellicanus pullos\ suos occidit, quia iustus cogitationes et opera que male gessit,\

on her young and lets her blood pour over the bodies of the dead, and so raises them from the dead.

In a mystic sense, the pelican signifies Christ; Egypt, the world. The pelican lives in solitude, as Christ alone condescended to be born of a virgin without intercourse with a man. It is solitary, because it is free from sin, as also is the life of Christ. It kills its young with its beak as preaching the word of God converts the unbelievers. It weeps ceaselessly for its young, as Christ wept with pity when he raised Lazarus. Thus after three days, it revives its young with its blood, as Christ saves us, whom he has redeemed with his own blood.

In a moral sense, we can understand by the pelican not the righteous man, but anyone who distances himself far from carnal desire. By Egypt is meant our life, shrouded in the darkness of ignorance. For Egiptus can be translated as 'darkness'. In Egypt, therefore, we make a wilderness (see Joel, 3:19), when we are far from the preoccupations and desires of this world. Thus the righteous man creates solitude for himself in the city, when he keeps himself free from sin, as far as human frailty allows.

The pelican kills its young with its beak because the righteous man considers and rejects his sinful thoughts and deeds

Folio 35v: Source with image of original document page.
ore proprio iudicat et confundit dicens: Confitebor adversum\ me iniusticiam meam domino, et tu remisisti impietatem\ peccati mei. Super eos triduo deflet quicquid cogitatione locuti\one et opere male gesserit, lacrimis deleri docet. Et sic pullos\ suos aspersos sanguine vivificat, dum carnis et sanguinis opera\ minuit, et actus spiritales bene vivendo servat. Huius etiam\ volucris natura talis dicitur esse, quod semper afficitur macie et quicquid glutit\ cito digerit, quia venter eius nullum habet diverticulum in quo retine\at cibum. Non igitur cibus ille corpus impinguat, sed tantum sustinet\ et confortat. Huic siquidem pellicano heremite vita fit similis\ qui pane pascitur, nec querit replecionem ventris, qui non\ vivit ut comedat, sed comedit ut vivat.\ out of his own mouth, saying: 'I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin' (Psalms, 32:5). It weeps for its young for three days: this teaches us that whatever we have done wrong by thought, word or deed, is expunged by tears. It revives its young by sprinkling them with its blood, as when we concern ourselves less with matters of flesh and blood and concentrate on spiritual acts, by conducting ourselves virtuously. It is also a characteristic of this bird, they say, that it always suffers from thinness, and that whatever it swallows, it digests immediately, because its stomach has no separate pocket in which to retain food. Food does not fatten its body, therefore, but only sustains it and gives it strength. Indeed, the life of a hermit is modelled on the pelican, in that he lives on bread but does not seek to fill his stomach; he does not live to eat but eats to live.

From: The Aberdeen Bestiary Project

Detail of an orphrey embroidery on the Pienza Cope
England, second quarter of the 14th C.

From: Medieval Embroiderers by Kay Staniland, British Museum Press, 1991, ISBN 0-7141-2051-0

(fig. 22, pg. 26, colour) Detail of an orphrey embroidery on the Pienza Cope showing realistically depicted birds similar to those recorded in fig. 23.

Also described in: A Pictorial History of Embroidery by Marie Schuette and Sigrid Müller-Christensen, Thames and Hudson, 1964

(Fig 103) "Detail from a cope. England, second quarter of the 14th century."
COPE, detail: Nativity
England, 1315-1335
Pienza, Cathedral
Height: 164 cm Diameter: 350 cm

Double layer of linen. Pearls (stolen in 1882), gold and silver thread, and coloured silk in blue, green shaded with yellow, sepia, fawn, grey, pink, brown and amber. Underside couching, split stitch sometimes alternating with petit point, laid and couched work, and satin stitch. ... A gift from Pope Pius II (1458-1464) to the Cathedral of his birthplace, in the year 1462.
Lit: A.G.I. Christie, English Medieval Embroidery, Oxford 1938, p. 178, pl. CXXXIX ff. - D. King, Opus Anglicanum, Exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum 1963, Cat. p. 31. No. 54

"Page of bird drawings from the Pepysian sketchbook by an English artist."
Late 14th C., held at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

From: Medieval Embroiderers by Kay Staniland, British Museum Press, 1991, ISBN 0-7141-2051-0, fig. 23

"Chasuble, detail of orphrey showing the stem of Jesse. England, c.1330"

From: A Pictorial History of Embroidery by Marie Schuette and Sigrid Müller-Christensen, Thames and Hudson, 1964, colour plate V

England, c.1330
Lyon, Musée Historique des Tissus. (Inventory No. 1189)
145x35cm. Detail illustrated: 70x35cm

...Gold thread, linen thread, and silk in yellow, red, blue and green, in various shades ranging from light to dark. Outlines in brown silk. All the vine leaves are worked in petit point, with the small tent stitches worked through the upper layer of linen only. Split and satin stitch. The background, in underside couched gold embroidery, is worked with quatrefoils containing lions. - The style of this embroidery is closely related to that of miniatures by the master of the Queen Mary Psalter and his circle.
Lit.: A.G.I. Christie, English Medieval Embroidery, Oxford 1938, p. 114 - E.G. Miller, La miniatre anglaise, Paris-Bruxelles 1928, II p. 19, 61 Pl 39 (Ms. now in Pierpont Morgan Library, New York) - D. King, Opus Anglicanum, Exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum 1963, Cat. p. 33, No. 57" (Illustration source: Paris, Giraudon)

1530, Venice, Needlework pattern book

From: Flowers of the Needle Edited and Translated by Elizabeth A. Cain and C. Kathryn Newell, 1985, pg 5. Flowers is a collection of facsimiles of 16th century needlework books. This particular pattern comes from Esemplario di lavori... by Niccolo Zoppino, called Aristotile.

The Catholic Encyclopedia

The Pelican is a symbol of the atonement and the Redeemer. It was supposed to wound itself in order to feed its young with its blood and to bring to life those who were dead -- the "pelicane who stricketh blood out of its owne bodye to do others good" (Lyly, Euphues). Allusion is made to this belief in "Hamlet" (act iv): --

To his good friend thus wide I'll ope my arms And, like the kind, life-rendering pelican, Repast them with my blood.

Therefore it was deemed a fitting symbol of the Saviour, the nostro pelicano of Dante, Who shed His blood in order to give eternal life to the children of men. Skelton in his "Armorie of Birds" says: --

Then sayd the Pellycan:
When my Byrdts be slayne
With my bloude I them revyve.
Scripture doth record
The same dyd our Lord
And rose from deth to lyve.

c. 1560

"Grants by William Hervy, Clarenceux, all of c. 1560, to [...] Tyldesley [...] (Coll. Arms, L 9, fo.29)"
From: The Oxford Guide to Heraldry by Thomas Woodcock, Somerset Herald, and John Martin Robinson Fitzalan Pursuivant Extraordinary, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988, ISBN 0-19-211658-4, plate X.

1565, Commentarii in sex libros Pedacci Dioscordis Anazarbei De medica materia... by Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1500-1577)


Woodcuts by Giorgio Librale and Wolfgang Meyerpeck.

St. Mary the Great with St. Michael, Cambridge

Drawing of a medieval roof-boss of the nave at Great St. Mary's.

From: Majestas, Nov. 1997, the parish newsletter.

Elizabethan jewel, 1575-1580

Full portrait (90k)

From: The Pelican Portrait, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

1587, Needlework pattern book
Les singuliers et nouveaux pourtraicts, du Seigneur Federic de Vinciolo

From: Les singuliers et nouveaux pourtraicts, du Seigneur Federic de Vinciolo Venitien, pour toutes sortes d'ouvrages de Lingerie. / Dedie a la royne, Douairiere de France. / Derechef et pour la troisiesme fois augmentez, outre le reseau premier et le point couppé et lacis, de plusieurs beaux et differens portrais de reseau de point coté, avec le nobre des mailles, chose non encor' venuë ny inventée. / A Paris / Pour Jean le Clerc, ruë S. Jean de Latran, à la Salemandre Royalle. / Avec Privilege du Roy. / 1606

Translation: The Unusual and New Designs, by Signor Frederico (de) Vinciolo, Venetian, for all sorts of needlework. / Dedicated to the Dowager Queen of France. / To which have again and for the third time been added - over and above the primary network, point coupé; and lacis, several beautiful and different designs for network with counted stitches, giving the number of meshes, something never before seen or invented. / Paris, for Jean Leclerc, rue St.-Jean de Latran, at the sign of the Royal Salamander. / With the King's license. / 1606

point coupé = cutwork in geometric designs
lacis = darned netting

A number of editions of the original pattern-book were published between 1587 and 1658. This version is based on a 1606 printing of the third edition, the first printing of which was in 1587.

Images and translation of title from: Renaissance Patterns for Lace, Embroidery and Needlepoint -- An Unabridged Facsimile of the 'Singuliers et nouveaux pourtraicts' of 1587 by Federico Vinciolo, Dover Publications, New York, 1971, pg 11, pg 86.

1619, Leipzig, Needlework pattern book
New Modelbuch - Bretschneider

From: New Modelbuch Darinnen allerley kunstliche Virsirung und Müster artiger Zuege und schöner Blummen zu zierlichen Ueberschlagen, Haupt Schurtz Schnuptüchern Hauben Handschuhen, Uhren (?) ghenzen, Kampf&uumpl;ttern und dergleighen auf Muhler naht und Seidenstucker arbeit gantz Kunstlich gemahlt und vorgerissen, dergleichen sie bevorn noch nie in Druck ausgegangen. 16 Leipzicht 19. / Inn Verlegung Henning Grosseren, de Jungeren / Andreas Betschneider Mahller.

Translation: New Pattern-book, in which all sorts of artistic ornamentations and patterns of pretty stuffs and beautiful flowers for covers for Head, Aprons, and Picket-handkerchiefs, Caps, Gloves, Clock cases, Comb Cases, and such like, 8artistically sketched from painter and silk embroiderer's work, and which have never before gone out of print.

From: Images from facsimile published by Kathryn Goodwyn (C. Kathryn Newell). Title and translation from History of Lace by Mrs. Bury Palliser, Dover, New York, Fourth Edition originally published 1911, ISBN 0-486-24742-2, pg. 43, 44

"Tapestry. England, c. 1675"

From: A Pictorial History of Embroidery by Marie Schuette and Sigrid Müller-Christensen, Thames and Hudson, 1964, Fig 414 (detail of Fig 413)

England, about 1675
Berne, Institute für angewandte Kunst, Abegg-Stiftung, Riggisberg
175x346 cm. Each rectangle: 25 x 19 cm

Rectangles containing bunches of flowers alternate with rectangles containing trees and animals, in part with symbolic or emblematic significance. Blue wollen twill embroidered with wool in red, green, yellow, blue and brown tones. Long and short stitch. The designs are derived from embroidery pattern books, and works on natural history and emblems.

"Coverlet, Indo-Portugese, 18th Century"

The entire coverlet (925k)
Line drawing of the pelican (147k) from the title page (unfortunately, without her chicks and missing the wound in her breast)

From: Portugal and the East through Embroidery: 16th to 18th century coverlets from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon. Washington, DC: International Exhibitions Foundation, 1981. ISBN: 0-88397-038-4. Fig. 9

9. COVERLET, Indo-Portugese, 18th Century
White cotton embroidered in purple, green, red and yellow silk. Chain stitch and French Knot stitch. The design may be considered a late variation of the band pattern. In the center, a pelican and in the corners, double-headed eagles and lions. Field and border also show interlaced foliage decoration and stylized flora.
Contributed by Friday Valentine (SCA: Rafaella d'Allemtejo)


A seal.

A pilgrim's badge.

From: Gaukler Medieval Wares


A pilgrim's badge

From: Steve Millingham Pewter Replicas


A reproduction of a 15th cenury badge

From: Pelican badge from Pilgrim Signs and Religious Goods from Billy and Charlie


From: Bill Dawson, Metalsmith


History of Lace by Mrs. Bury Palliser, Dover, New York, Fourth Edition originally published 1911, ISBN 0-486-24742-2, pg 19
Mrs. Palliser's version of pattern from "Singuliers et nouveaux pourtraicts" by Federico Vinciolo (1588 version).

From: The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable Based on the original book of Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, Wordsworth Editions Ltd, Hertfordshire, 1993. ISBN 1-85326-300-1

Pelican. In Christian art, a symbol of charity; also an emblem of Jesus Christ, by "whose blood we are healed". St. Jerome gives the story of the pelican restoring its young ones destroyed by serpents, and his own salvation by the blood of Christ. The popular fallacy that pelicans feed their young with their blood arose from the fact that the parent bird transfers macerated food from the large bag under its bill to its young. The correct term for the heraldic representation of the bird in this act is a pelican in her piety, piety having the classical meaning of filial devotion.

The mediæval Bestiary tells us that the pelican is very fond of its brood, but, when they grow, they often rebel against the male bird and provoke his anger, so that he kills them; the mother returns to the nest in three days, sits on the dead birds, pours her blood over them, revives them, and they feed on her blood.

Then sayd the Pellycane,
When my byrdis be slayne
With my bloude I them reuyue (revive),
Scripture doth record
The same dyd our Lord,
And rose from death to lyue.
      Skelton: Armoury of Birds


From: An Heraldic Alphabet by J.P. Brooke-Little, Richmond Herald of Arms, Arco Publishing Co, New York, 1973, ISBN 0-668-002941-2, pg. 159

From: Gleaned from the Internet. Source and artist unknown. (If you recognize the source of this image, I'd appreciate a note.)


[Originally gleaned from the Internet at: Original]
From: Basic Heraldry by Stephen Friar and John Ferguson, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1993, ISBN 0-393-03463-1.


From: Heraldry -- Customs, Rules and Styles by Carl-Alexander von Volborth, Blandford Press, Dorset, 1981, pg 41


From: The Wordsworth Complete Guide to Heraldry aka A Complete Guide to Heraldry by A. C. Fox-Davies, Wordsworth Editions Ltd, Hertfordshire, 1996, ISBN 1-85326-365-6. Reprint of original published in 1925.

The Pelican, with its curious heraldic representation and its strange terms, may almost be considered an instance of the application of the existing name of a bird to an entirely fanciful creation. Mr. G. W. Eve, in his "Decorative Heraldry," states that in early representations of the bird it was depicted in a more naturalistic form, but I confess I have not myself met with such an ancient representation.
Heraldically, it has been practically always depicted with the head and body of an eagle, with wings elevated and with the neck embowed, pecking with its beak at its breast. The term for this is "vulning itself," and although it appears to be necessary always to describe it in the blazon as "vulning itself," it will never be met with save in this position; a pelican's head even, when erased at the neck, being always so represented. It is supposed to be pecking at its breast to provide drops of blood as nourishment for its young, and it is termed "in its piety" when depicted standing in its nest and with its brood of young [see figure]. It is difficult to imagine how the pelican came to be considered as always existing in this position, because there is nothing in the nature of a natural habit from which this could be derived. There are, however, other birds which, during the brooding season, lose their feathers upon the breast, and some which grow red feathers there, and it is doubtless from this that the idea originated.
In heraldic and ecclesiastical symbolism the pelican has acquired a somewhat sacred character as typical of maternal solicitude. It will never be found "close," or in any other positions than with the wings endorsed and either elevated or inverted.
When blazoned "proper," it is always given the colour and plumage of the eagle, and not its natural colour of white. In recent years, however, a tendency has rather made itself manifest to give the pelican its natural and more ungainly appearance, and its curious pouched beak.


Arms of Corpus Christie College (drawn by G. Mussett)

Corpus Christi College in Cambridge was founded in 1351 by the two Guilds of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin, and the arms confirmed to them at the Visitation of Cambridge in 1575 were a quarterly coat, first and fourth Gules a pelican in her piety upon a Nest containing three young all argent, and second and third Azure three Lilies argent.
Coll. Arms MS. G.18, f. 59.
From: The Heraldic Imagination by Rodney Dennys, Clarkson N. Potter Inc., New York, 1975, pg 103-4.


Owner: unknown, Artist unknown.
Note: This illustration appears at the end of the chapter Eagles and Fabulous Birds without any accompanying information. It's a poor representation of the medieval heraldic pelican in any case, who's legs were rarely drawn this long.

From: The Heraldic Imagination by Rodney Dennys, Clarkson N. Potter Inc., New York, 1975, pg 103-4.


Pelican The heraldic pelican is transformed from the clumsy natural bird into one of great beauty and religious significance. It is sometimes depicted like an eagle, and sometimes more like a swan, and although it always has a much longer beak than either of these two birds, this is much more slender and graceful than that of the real bird.

It was once believed that although pelicans were extremely devoted to their young, these would rebel against their father and provoke his anger, whereupon he would strike back and kill them. Three days later the mother bird would return to the nest, and piercing her own breast would bring them back to life by pouring her blood on them. Thus the pelican became the mystic emblem of Christ, whose blood was shed for mankind. It is the symbol of charity, love and piety.

There are armorial terms which apply only to the pelican who is depicted with her wings raised, her neck embowed, pecking at her own breast, from which drops of blood are falling. In this posture the bird is blazoned as 'vulning herself'. But if she is standing on her nest and nourishing her babies with her blood she is described as being 'in her piety'.

The pelican is used quite frequently in armory both in the arms and as the crest. Its association with Christ makes it a particularly appropriate charge in the arms of the two colleges of Corpus Christi, one at Oxford and the other at Cambridge. At Oxford the shield is divided into three and on the dexter part is a pelican vulning herself. At Cambridge the shield is quartered, the first and fourth quarters bearing a pelican in her piety for Christ.

From: A Dictionary of Heraldry Edited by Stephen Friar (with illustrations by John Ferguson, Andrew Jamieson, and Anthony Wood), Harmony Books, New York, 1987, ISBN 0-517-5665-6, pg 266.

Modern - Louisiana

From: The Info Louisiana website.

From: The Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center

From: The Louisiana State Flag at

Full-sized image (49k)
From: Full-sized image from Southern University at New Orleans

Modern - Kent Kessinger

From: Wood Engraving -- An Art Lost and Found, Kent Kessinger website.

Modern - French Culture

Probably a modern depiction of the badge of Marie de Medici, second wife of Henry IV.
Motto: "Tegit virtue minores" (By his courage he protects his children)

From: Avenue France - Culture

From: Christian Legends & Symbols

This bird exemplifies the sacrificial love of a parent for its offspring. The mother pelican's habit of reaching into her pouch to extract food for her young led to some misunderstanding amongst early peoples. They believed that the parent bird was tearing open its breast to feed its babies on its own blood.

Legends abound in which the father pelican revives his deceased young by tearing open his heart and drenching them with his life's blood. In some, the mother inadvertently smothers the children with her abundant caresses. In others, the babies die of weakness, are killed by snakes, or treat the father so insolently that he murders them in a rage. In each case, the father, seeing that his children are dead, mourns them loudly for three days and then revives them at the cost of his own life. The resurrected young awake full of health and goodness. These legends serve as allegories for the resurrection of mankind in Christ and the purifying sacrifice of blood and water which flowed from the wound in His side. [Jn 19:31-37] Inspired by these legends, Thomas Aquinas wrote, "Pelican of mercy, Jesu, Lord and God, cleanse me, wretched sinner, in thy precious Blood; Blood, whereof one drop for humankind outpoured, might from all transgression have the world restored." During the Middle Ages, many artists placed a pelican with its nest on top of the cross.

St. Gertrude had a vision of Christ in the form of a pelican feeding humankind with His blood. Her vision has Eucharistic connotations. Jesus told His astonished followers, ""Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life..." [Jn 6:54]

Until the 18th century, the Christ-pelican was almost always portrayed piercing itself on the right side of its breast. This imagery was drawn from a vague interpretation of Ezekiel's prophecy, "...the water (Christ's blood and water) was flowing from under the right side of the temple (Christ's body)... and it shall be that every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live..." [Ezek 47:1 & 9 - parenthesis added] Later, Freemasonry would use a pelican piercing its left side as a symbol of the self-sacrifice required of its members. Many artists and craftsmen were unaware of the significance of the right side of the breast and the pelican of the Free Masons began appearing in Christian art and churches.

Just as Christ's sacrifice was the ultimate act of charity, so too, is the pelican's gift of life to its undeserving young an emblem of this Christian virtue which is ever ready to lay down its life for a friend or the sheep. [Jn 10:11 & 15, 15:12-13] Its antithesis is the vampire (representative of the heretic) who prolongs his own life by taking blood (eternal life) from its victims.

In the Bible, the destruction and utter desolation of nations is summed up by saying that the pelican, along with other wild beasts and birds, shall dwell in their place. [Isa 34:11; Zep 2:14] Through the psalmist, Christ also called Himself "a pelican of the wilderness." [Psa 102:6] This phrase refers to His rejection by His people and abandonment by His followers during His Passion. [Mt 26:56; Lk 55-62; Mk 14:50-52] The "pelican of the wilderness" has also been associated with Christ's fast in the wilderness after His baptism in the River Jordan. [Mt 4:1-11]

Another pelican myth is that it would eat only the smallest amount of food necessary to maintain life. It therefore became symbolic of those who fast and/or strive for spiritual purification.

All scripture quotes are from the NKJV Bible.



From: Gleaned from the Internet. Sources and artists unknown. Because of the enclosing circle/badge format, I suspect it originates from the SCA. (If you recognize the source of these images, I'd appreciate a note.)

For those interested in SCA heraldry, the registered blazons of the pelican badges of the Order of the Pelican are: (Tinctureless) A pelican in its piety and (Tinctureless) A pelican vulning itself.


From: Christian Symbols and Glossary who got it from Symbols of the Church, edited by Carroll E. Whittemore with drawings by William Duncan. ICN 407869, 1959, Abingdon Press, Nashville, USA.


From: The Known World Handbook -- Being a compendium of information, traditions and crafts practiced in these Current Middle Ages in the Society for Creative Anachronism
Twentieth Year Edition Edited by Mistress Hilary of Serendip, Steward, Society for Creative Anachronism Inc, 1985, pg. 149

Re-charted by Donna Hrynkiw (SCA: Elizabeth Braidwood)

Cross-Stitch [Chart for] Pelican Badge
Lady Tamara LaGracieuse de Tours, 1983
"Vert, a pelican in her piety proper."
[This design is] scaled so that if the design is executed on 22 count (22 squares to the inch) cloth, the finished [badge] will be two and a half inches in diameter. Of course, if a larger (or smaller) badge is desired the finished size can be calculated by dividing the number of threads to the inch in the fabric into 55. [The] pattern is roughly 55 by 55 squares.


Heraldic Templates
by Torric inn Bjarni (Modern: Floyd L. Bullock, 1992)


From: A Pictorial Dictionary of Heraldry As Used in the Society for Creative Anachronism
by Bruce Draconarius of Mistholme and Akagawa Yoshio, 2nd Edition, 1992, ill. 557

PELICAN -- The pelican is a marine bird, which in medieval legend would revive its dead young with blood from its own breast. Its most common posture is thus blazoned a "pelican in its piety": wings addorsed, piercing its breast with its beak to feed its young [see image]. (The posture is also sometimes blazoned a "pelican vulning itself", particularly if no hatchlings are depicted.)
Period depictions of this bird do not show it as found in nature, with a baggy-bottomed beak, but with a long slender beak resembling that of a stork, and with ruffled feathers.
The pelican was used in the canting arms of Pelham as early as 1418. In Society armory, the pelican is reserved to the Order of Peerage of the same name.
The Order of the Pelican bears: A pelican in its piety.


From: Raymond's Quiet Press, intended for display/wearing by members of the Order of the Pelican of the S.C.A.


From: Atlantia Scribes Clip-Art page.


From: Great Northeastern War Contact page.


From: Lochac Fealty Chains and Peerage Medallions by Kiriel


Master Khevron says of his medallion:

My medalion was made from Mastodon Ivory (thousands of years old) - found on the beach here in the arctic Alaska branch of the SCA Ynys Taltraeth. It was carved by a friend of mine based on the top image [of this page] two years ago [in 1998]. It appears cracked and fragile, but is quite solid. The Silver chain is the work of Grimr af Vargejum.

Image donated by Khevron Oktavii Tikhikovich Vorotnikov, O.P.

Real Pelicans

The White Pelican (elecanus erythrorhynchos)
Brown Pelican
Connie's Pelican Page
USGS Biological Resources: Brown Pelican
The Redberry Pelican Project (Canada) Foundation
The Mining Company - Types of Birds: Pelicans

This page created: 8 Feb. 1999
Donna M. Hrynkiw / Elizabeth Braidwood