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Animals > Pelicans









The gilded bird standing on its nest can be identified as a pelican since it is feeding its breast to its young and is known in this familiar stance as a pelican-in-her- piety.   


According to the bestiaries pelicans were thought to be devoted parents who were prepared to sacrifice their lives for their young. Here the female pelican has ripped open her own breast and the three young birds are feeding on her blood, which can be seen running down her front in large drops.  When they have taken sufficient for their needs she will die.  This was seen as a direct parallel with the sacrifice Christ made for mankind.


The pelican in art bears no similarity to its natural counterpart with its huge beak and might be mistaken for some other bird.  However, it is always found with its beak pecking into its breast and is frequently accompanied by its young.  In an alternative version to the above story the pelican kills its young in irritation; the pelican pecks open its breast and the young revive when the blood drips over them. In this version the pelican may stand alone without the young birds.


The pelican was a common image in early churches, frequently to be found on the top of crucifixes.