The Pelican as a Christian Symbol

It is easy to see why the pelican was sometimes thought to pierce its own breast.

It is easy to see why the pelican was sometimes thought to pierce its own breast.

The pelican was believed to pierce its own breast with its beak and feed its young of its blood. It became a symbol of Christ sacrificing himself for man – and because of this was frequently represented in Christian art.

The belief probably came about because of the pelican’s red-tipped beak and very white feathers, and because long-beaked birds such as the pelican are often to be found standing with their beaks resting on their breasts. In addition, the Dalmatian pelican's pouch turns red during the breeding season.

Detail of the lectern in Durham Cathedral, dating from the late 19th century, and designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott. It depicts 'a pelican in her piety' – in other words, piercing her breast to feed her young with her own blood.