The Pelican: Symbol of the Passion of Christ

tree_of_life.jpg

I love it when art and music converge to make history and the Bible more vivid. Such is the case that starts in Florence at the Galleria dell’Accademia in the Byzantine room just down the hall from Michaelangelo’s massive “David.” In this room hangs Pacino di Bonaguida’s “Tree of Life,” dating back to about 1310. It shows Christ’s Crucifixion on a tree with twelve branches. The painting depicts the writing of St. Bonaventure’s Lignum Vitae (1260) in which he discusses the origin, the passion and the glorification of Christ. He hangs a medallion for each of Bonaventure’s 48 headings along the branches and adds a few additional biblical events. I found Lauren Simpson’s essay helpful in understanding the details of the Tree of Life.

You cannot escape the centrality of Christ in the painting. This is no accident. Medieval Christian writers saw the New Testament as a fulfillment of the Old Testament Law and therefore linked the Old Testament anticipation of Messiah with the New Testament fulfillment in the person of Christ. Indeed, our modern conservative hermeneutics interprets much of the Old Testament as “types” that prefigure Christ, realizing that the writers were inspired by God to write what made perfect sense to the readers at the time, but also wrote beyond themselves to the fulfilled meaning in Christ. And so, in the painting, Christ spans the time continuum from creation to glorification with His overarching message of redemption in his shed blood on the cross and his resurrection. All other events in history derive their meaning from this central event and lead to the culmination of all things in Him for eternity.

A peculiar element rests at the top of the painting, namely a pelican. Prior to last month’s visit to Florence, I had never heard of the symbolic significance of a pelican. It goes something like this.

The symbolism of the mother pelican feeding her little baby pelicans is rooted in an ancient legend which preceded Christianity. The legend was that in time of famine, the mother pelican wounded herself, striking her breast with the beak to feed her young with her blood to prevent starvation. Another version of the legend was that the mother fed her dying young with her blood to revive them from death, but in turn lost her own life. — Fr. William P. Saunders in a column from the Arlington Catholic Herald (2003).

Our church choir director, J. Marty Cope, enlightened me concerning a festive anthem written by Gerald Finzi, “Lo, the full, final, Sacrifice.” He exlained that the words come from Richard Crashaw’s translations of the Hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas, Adoro Te and Lauda Sion Salvatorem. The last stanza references the pelican and the blood:

O soft self-wounding Pelican!
Whose breast weeps Balm for wounded man.

All this way bend thy benign flood
To’a bleeding Heart that gasps for blood.
That blood, whose least drops sovereign be
To wash my worlds of sins from me.
Come love! Come Lord! and that long day
For which I languish, come away.
When this dry soul those eyes shall see,
And drink the unseal’d source of thee.
When Glory’s sun faith’s shades shall chase,
And for thy veil give me thy Face.
Amen.

Additional text and comments about the pelican are contained in another interesting blog post.

velazquez-christ-on-the-cross-500.jpg

One of the most difficult tasks I can imagine is to extend love, sacrificial love, to someone who has hurt you deeply. This is even more difficult to imagine if the one suffering did not do anything wrong in the first place. When I think of the bleeding Christ, I am moved to fall down before Him in thanksgiving and worship. And during this time of year, my thoughts gravitate toward the Passion of Christ and his subsequent resurrection, carving a path for me to follow in His time. When I think on this history, this art, this music and this Jesus, then the things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.

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6 Responses to The Pelican: Symbol of the Passion of Christ

  1. [...] miriam wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptMedieval Christian writers saw the New Testament as a fulfillment of the Old Testament Law and therefore linked the Old Testament anticipation of Messiah with the New Testament fulfillment in the person of Christ. … [...]

  2. [...] ibsconsult wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt [...]

  3. bjmmckee says:

    Very interesting – I have never heard about the pelican! About the last paragraph — beautiful and AMEN!
    God Bless!
    Bonnie

  4. [...] di Buonaguida’s “Tree of Life”.  See here why there’s a Pelican at the [...]

  5. izmir söve says:

    izmir söve…

    [...]The Pelican: Symbol of the Passion of Christ « J. Lee Jagers, PhD, ThM, LPC[...]…

  6. [...] As an example…this piece is titled Psalms and contains the entire book of Psalms as its underpinning.  The pelican, historically, represented Eucharist (the Body of Christ).  J. Lee Jagers writes about it eloquently here. [...]

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