Recently I’ve been looking at medieval sculptural details and one of the more interesting themes is ‘The Pelican in her Piety’. When food was scarce the female pelican was thought to peck her own breast until it bled in order to feed blood to her young. This Christian imagery of ‘The Pelican in her Piety’ would have been a familiar symbol across medieval Europe representing the self-sacrifice of Christ’s Passion.
It is intriguing to examine fifteenth-century English interpretations depicting pelicans despite these birds not being found naturally in the British Isles. The above sculptural representations of this theme can be seen in the Church of St Peter and St Paul in the South Norfolk village of East Harling. Searching out local, regional work is one of the pleasures of investigating the creative skills and imagination of the medieval artisan.
It is also thought-provoking to consider the dispersal and then acceptance of new ideas and symbols such as the pious pelican. Perhaps one route of transmission occurred through illuminated books. All kinds of real and imaginary combinations decorate their pages. This intriguing image of an ape riding a crane is from a fourteenth-century Flemish Psalter.
Of course, monks working away illuminating manuscripts in a medieval scriptorium in Europe may have seen a crane or a stork or even a pelican in the wild, but ever since the Ancient Egyptians there is evidence of humans capturing and keeping birds in cages. Nowadays, more often than not it is the rare and endangered birds that are kept not in cages, but in wildlife sanctuaries in attempts to save their species.
These birds – storks, cranes (members of the Great Crane Project) and ibises form part of a collection at the Pensthorpe Natural Park in North Norfolk. Sadly though there are no pelicans not even the Dalmatian Pelican whose current status is listed as vulnerable.
Reading round the bird forums on the Internet I saw somebody describe these stunning birds as ‘deeply ugly’, surely not! I agree they are, along with herons, not tiny, sweet and cuddly, but to me they appear, with a little visual imagination, to have flown in from the Cretaceous Period. They bring with them a hint of early Earth drama with their pterodactyl-like appearance.