Eucharistic Bird-spotting

A Spot-billed Pelican (Pelicanus Philippensis) feeding its young

Pelecanidae Pelecanus

As some of you may know, one of my hobbies is birding. Sarah and I are members of the Massachusetts Audubon Society and we frequent nature reserves and parks armed with binoculars and a bag-full of bird identification manuals.  

As we approach the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, I thought it opportune to focus on the pelican--a bird that has come to symbolize the Passion of Christ and the Eucharist. There are eight living species in the genus Pelecanus. Clumsy in their appearance, pelicans are large water birds that struggle to fly gracefully. They have an almost disproportionately large bill and throat pouch which enables them to scoop up water containing fish. While most think of them as having an exclusively pescatarian diet, they are omnivorous and opportunistic  Indeed, the captive Great White Pelicans of St James' Park in London are known to swallow city pigeons--an act that has scarred countless tourists for life. 

Throughout the middle ages, the pelican came to symbolize the Eucharistic miracle. Indeed, Thomas Aquinas refers to Jesus as 'Pie Pelicane' ('merciful pelican') in his Eucharistic hymn Adoro Te Devote. How did such an odd creature come to symbolize the incarnate Son of God? The answer can be found in medieval bestiaries--a rather wonderful literary genre. A bestiary is an encyclopedia containing illustrations and descriptions of both real and non-existent animals. Cats and badgers can be found alongside centaurs and basilisks. The general purpose of a bestiary is not so much to provide accounts of zoological accuracy but rather teach a moral lesson through allegory that builds upon a creature's (supposed) attributes and habits. 

For example, crocodilians are held up as the model of Christian penitence--they seemingly weep while eating their prey. In compiling a bestiary, a medieval scholar was permitted to let the imagination fill-in for lack of experience and knowledge. Consequently, the panther was described as a multicolored bear-like, gentle giant that preyed on dragons. It symbolized Christ who fought and killed the dragon of death after his descent into hell. If you wish to further amuse yourself at the zoological shortcomings of medieval monks, do have a look at David Badke's online bestiary.

This brings us to the case of the pelican. As the image above shows, they feed their young by regurgitating  their catch into their throat pouch. The chick then proceeds to eat out of the mother's head. At some point in the seventh century someone (possibly Isidore of Seville) observed this and interpreted it as the mother pelican allowing her chicks to drink her blood. A few centuries later the account had evolved into one where the mother pierces her own side with her bill, thereby reviving her dying chicks with her free-flowing blood. The Christological symbolism is plain to see and the self-wounding pelican has become an extremely common piece of iconography in Western Christianity. 


Music: Gerald Finzi (1901-56)
Text: Richard Crashaw (1613-49)
Artists: Choir of New College, Oxford/Edward Higginbottom

Often considered his finest work, Gerald Finzi's Lo, the full, final sacrifice was composed in 1946 to mark the 53rd anniversary of the consecration of St Matthew's Church, Northampton, UK. It was commissioned by the Rev'd Walter Hussey, Rector of St Matthew's and a great patron of the musical and visual arts (he commissioned Leonard Berstein's Chichester Psalms and Benjamin Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb among other works). 

The text of the anthem is a pair of poems by the seventeenth-century Anglican clergyman Richard Crashaw which are in themselves artistic translations of fragments of Thomas Aquinas' Lauda Sion Salvatorem and Adoro Te Devote. Finzi sets the text in his typical, sectional and rhapsodic style in which he spins and expands beautiful melodies. A lyrical setting of the words 'O soft, self-wounding pelican' follow the dynamic climax of the piece which concludes with perhaps one of the finest settings of the word 'Amen' in English choral music. 

Lo, the full, final sacrifice On which all figures fix’d their eyes,
The ransom’d Isaac, and his ram; The Manna, and the Paschal lamb.
Jesu Master, just and true! Our Food, and faithful Shepherd too!
O let that love which thus makes thee Mix with our low Mortality,
Lift our lean Souls, and set us up Convictors of thine own full cup,
Coheirs of Saints. That so all may Drink the same wine; and the same way.
Nor change the Pasture, but the Place To feed of Thee in thine own Face.
O dear Memorial of that Death Which lives still, and allows us breath!
Rich, Royal food! Bountiful Bread! Whose use denies us to the dead!
Live ever Bread of loves, and be My life, my soul, my surer self to me.
Help Lord, my Faith, my Hope increase; And fill my portion in thy peace.
Give love for life; nor let my days Grow, but in new powers to thy name and praise.
Rise, Royal Sion! rise and sing Thy soul's kind shepherd, thy heart's King.
Stretch all thy powers; call if you can Harps of heaven to hands of man.
This sovereign subject sits above The best ambition of thy love.
Lo the Bread of Life, this day's Triumphant Text provokes thy praise.
The living and life-giving bread, To the great twelve distributed
When Life, himself, at point to die Of love, was his own Legacy.
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 beTo 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.



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