Sculpture 18: the pious pelican


Pelican carving, Old Vicarage, Great Chesterford, Essex

This small wooden panel has a late 15th-century carving of a “pelican in her piety”, a suitable Christian symbol for the exterior of the timber-framed former vicarage next to the church. Passers-by can easily see this from the street or the adjacent churchyard.

It was popularly supposed that, because of the way the pelican fed its young with regurgitated food from its beak, it was removing flesh and blood from its breast to nourish them.

An added element of this grotesque notion is that it did this to revive its young which had been killed by a serpent. From this fiction grew the idea that the pelican somehow symbolised or even prefigured Jesus redeeming mankind by shedding his own blood and defeating the devil.


2 thoughts on “Sculpture 18: the pious pelican

    1. I know what you mean — where is the large sac under the lower bill? But that’s the medieval mind for you: why let observation get in the way of preconceptions? No, scratch that, that can also apply to modern minds…

      Just behind this building and the church is the River Granta (, which feeds into the Cam (whence Cambridge); there are often geese and ducks there and on the adjacent village green and you’d think that there’d possibly be opportunities in the 15th-century to see pelicans. But perhaps not.


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