The Blood of the Pelican

    Beato Angelico’s altarpiece The Crucifixion illustrates the meaning of the scene by means of a very special symbol drawn from biblical sources and a very long tradition.

    The Christ as a Pelican. Eternal Truths from the Animal Kingdom. 
    By Stefano Chiappalone  (Translated by Leonardo Pavese) 

    Last July, for a singular coincidence, the famous Christie’s auction house offered to the bidders' attention a painting by Beato Angelico whose symbology is strictly linked to the Most Precious Blood of Christ, to which the month of July is traditionally dedicated.

    The Dominican friar Fra’ Giovanni da Fiesole (1395-1455), is more known in art history as Beato Angelico, a title that attests to his sanctity which was officially recognized in 1982 by Saint Pope John Paul II, who proclaimed him patron saint of the artists.

    Notwithstanding the prestigious commissions that he received during his lifetime, probably the Angelic could not have imagined that his relatively small tempera painting (about 24” by 13 ½”) would have set a selling record. On July 6, 2023 the painting that represents the Crucifixion with Mary, Saint John and Magdalene was valued above 5 M£ (the initial estimates varied between 4 M£ and 6 M£). The Crucifixion, that was originally part of a triptych, was painted between 1419 and 1426.

    On Christie’s website the figure of John in the painting is indicated as John the Baptist (The Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John the Baptist and the Magdalen) which is very strange, because of the youthful features of the man and in light of the Gospels (John the Baptist was dead and under the cross there was Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist). The iconography based on the Gospels usually places the beardless Apostle John on the Calvary and not John the Baptist the cousin of the Lord. For that matter, when Beato Angelico and other painters presented an anachronism (as in the Crucifixion with Saint Dominic) they did it explicitly, while in this case there are none of the typical features of John the Baptist.

    “A rare and moving work of art that exemplifies the profound faith of Beato Angelico” was the description of Francis Russell, the Deputy Chairman of Christie’s UK who discovered the painting in 1996. “The tenderness with which Christ is represented is equal to the painful crying of the Virgin. Every movement is perfectly measured. In Fra’ Angelico nothing is left to chance.”

    Nothing was left to chance, not even an apparently small detail that seems to be overlooked in the sea of justifiably enthusiastic comments on the use of the perspective, the color, the gestures, and the expressivity of the depicted characters.

    The saying goes that the Devil is in the details, but sometimes God can be found there too. On top of the cross, in Beato Angelico’s painting, there is a pelican that is feeding its young. The pelican is one of the many symbols that can be seen in churches and tabernacles and are often mistaken as mere ornaments, because the key to interpret them was lost.

    "Pie pellicane, Jesu Domine: me immundum munda tuo sanguine" (Pius Pelican, Lord Jesus, cleanse foul me with your blood) is a verse from Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Adoro te devote. Dante Alighieri too calls Jesus Christ “our Pelican.” Presenting Saint John the Evangelist in the XXV (25th) Chant of Paradise Dante writes: “This is the one who lay upon the breast Of him our Pelican; and this is he To the great office from the cross elected.” (vv. 112-114). And after having read this verses, it is impossible to look at the work of Beato Angelico without raising the gaze from the Evangelist, He who was to the great office from the cross elected, up to the “Pelican” sacrificed on the cross and represented then in a symbolic form on top.

    However, while it is easier to associate Jesus Christ to other animals (for example, the lamb and the lion of Judah), the symbology of the pelican is less immediate, although it was widespread in the medieval times.

    As for other symbolic animals of the “Christian bestiary,” the source is in the Physiologus, a treatise on the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms written in Alexandria of Egypt between the 2nd and the 3rd century, various versions of which were distributed in the following centuries. For a more complete exposition, also about the later sources of the symbol of the pelican, we refer the reader to an essay by the Dominican Fra’ Maxim D’Sylva (The Pelican as Symbol of the Eucharist). The Physiologus begins referring to the bird by the peculiar beak quoting the Psalm 102, vv. 7. The Latin text reads: “Similis factus sum pellicano solitudinis” (In the English text the bird is rendered as an owl: “I am like a desert owl...”) And what does a pelican do in the desert? The author of the Physiologus recounts a legend that tells a story of death and resurrection by means of blood.

    In fact, when the young are born and begin to grow,” we read in the Physiologus, “they start hitting their parents in the face. Their angry parents then hit them back and kill them. The third day, the mother, striking her chest, opens her side. She leans over her young and spreads her blood on the bodies of her dead children; and so, her blood resuscitates them.” It is a rather truculent legend but surely with a happy ending.

    At this point the symbolism is obvious: the sacrifice of the Christ and the infinite power – vital! – of His blood spilled on the Cross veil and unveil themselves under the semblance of the pelican. Just like the young pelicans, says the Physiologus, we “stroke at the face, in His presence, serving the creature and not the Creator. That is why, our Lord Jesus Christ went on the Cross and blood and water spilled from His pierced side for our salvation and our eternal life.” And so, the pelican tears at his chest to resurrect and nourish his young, as we see it in the painting of Beato Angelico and – not by accident – on many altars and tabernacles.

    Evidently, the scope of the Physiologus was not scientific, but the book was characterized by that “pre-modern” view of the world that saw through the mere material aspect of creation and understood its exhortations and discerned in it the hints of eternity. It was not a “naturalistic” point view, in the usual sense, but it was certainly sapiential: a wisdom-based outlook without which there would not be Beato Angelico’s works of art or, for that matter, all the sacred art that is impregnated with those symbols. With the joy of its contemplation, we can find in it a multitude of rivulets of that redemption that “our Pelican” obtained for us at the price of His blood.

    This is a translation of an article that originally appeared on the Italian online daily La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana. It was posted here with their permission.
    Your comment, as always, will be most appreciated.
    Many thanks to J.J. Pavese for reviewing my English version.
    Thank you,
    L. Pavese



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