Sunday 13th December

For this Sunday, we look into one of the less used religious symbols; the Pelican. Here, Robin McCaig tells us a little more.

The pelican is the first boss from the right

The Pelican in its Piety

Five bosses form a central spine to the magnificent ceiling of the Thistle Chapel. Starting at the chapel’s western end, above the sovereign’s stall, they represent: the sovereign’s coat of arms as used in Scotland; St Giles (with his deer but without an arrow in his hand); the star of the order as worn by the Knights on their green velvet robes every St Andrewstide; and St Andrew himself, apostle and martyr, patron of Scotland and the Order.

The final boss, in the eastern end, is less recognisable. Some visitors ask does it depict an eagle or even a dragon? It is, in fact, a pelican or, more specifically, what is called the pelican in its piety. The boss shows the pelican with three hungry chicks beneath it and from the pelican’s pouched bill fall four drops of blood. This reflects the ancient story, commonly found in medieval bestiaries, that a female pelican so cared for her young that, if food was short, she would pluck the flesh from her own breast and nourish them with it. This belief may have arisen from the actual feeding habits of the bird – the youngest chicks are fed with regurgitated food and thereafter they will feed themselves directly from the parent pelican’s pouch which the adult bird will ensure is empty by pressing against its breast.

Whatever its origins the idea of the pelican as an embodiment of parental love and devotion was adopted as an allegory for Christ’s sacrifice with the feeding of the chicks from the pelican’s own flesh evoking the Last Supper where Jesus gave bread and wine to his Disciples telling them that this meal comprised his body and his blood. As a result the image of the pelican in its piety can be found far beyond the ceiling of the Thistle Chapel. One early example is in another church – the Palatine Chapel in Aachen (once part of Charlemagne’s palace and now attached to Aachen cathedral) was consecrated in 805 and features a mosaic of the pelican and its chicks. By coincidence one tale of the origins of the “original” Order of the Thistle is that it was created to honour a treaty between Charlemagne and a Scottish king.

Both Oxford and Cambridge have a constituent college (founded in 1517 and 1352 respectively) named Corpus Christi for an association with the feast of Corpus Christi (literally “the body of Christ”) which usually occurs on the first Thursday following Trinity Sunday. The feast is a celebration of the elements of the eucharist, or holy communion, and both Colleges feature the pelican as part of their coats of arms. The Cambridge college has the full pelican in its piety (i.e. the pelican and its young) whereas Corpus, Oxford, has only the bleeding pelican without the chicks – in heraldry this is termed the pelican vulning (or wounding itself). Corpus, Cambridge, uses an alternative version of the legend in which the perhaps overly protective mother pelican quarrels with her three chicks and kills them. In contrition she stabs her breast with her bill and the blood that falls from the wound restores her children to life.

Queen Elizabeth I of England often used the image of the pelican to reflect her position as the mother of the new Church of England and in Nicholas Hilliard’s “pelican portrait” of the early 1570s the Queen is depicted wearing a pendant badge of the pelican in its piety. In King Lear, first performed in 1606, Shakespeare has Lear, referring to the ingratitude of his children, complain that “ ‘twas this flesh begot those pelican daughters” (Act 3, Scene 4) and there are other mentions in Hamlet (“the kind life-rend’ring pelican” (Act 4, Scene 5) and Richard II (Act 2, Scene 1).

The medical profession has made frequent use of the pelican as an emblem and it serves as the crest of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. In 1917 the Infirmary’s School of Nursing introduced the “pelican badge” for student nurses who had completed additional training at the RIE. The Pelican Nurses’ League is still in existence today.

The pelican in its piety is a popular image with a rich history but Elizabeth I was not Queen of Scots nor does the Presbyterian Church of Scotland celebrate Corpus Christi so why specifically was the pelican chosen to adorn the Thistle Chapel? The Order of the Thistle was founded by James VII of Scotland (James II of England) in 1687 (although James claimed to be reviving a dormant honour of Scottish chivalry hence “The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order”) and revived, in the early 1700s, by his daughter Queen Anne. Both belonged to the house of Stuart which had also adopted the pelican in its piety as one of its emblems and so the pelican boss is there to honour them. James VII’s grandfather, James VI (who followed Elizabeth to the throne of England as James I), used the pelican device also and a pelican in its piety appears on the title page of the first edition of the “King James Bible” from 1611. To this day certain members of the Stewart family include the pelican in its piety as a part of their heraldry and two of them, the Earl of Moray and the Earl of Galloway have connections to the Order of the Thistle. 

The present Earldom of Moray dates to 1562 when it was bestowed upon James Stewart by his half-sister Mary, Queen of Scots (Mary having altered her version of the family name to “Stuart”). He became regent for the infant James VI and, following his assassination in 1570, was buried in St Giles’. A memorial marks the site of his tomb today and displays the heraldic crest of the Earls – the pelican in its piety (appropriately the memorial is in the part of St Giles’ called the Holy Blood aisle). The first Earl’s great great grandson, the fifth Earl (who was also named James but adopted the “Stuart” spelling), was one of the first eight Knights of the Thistle appointed by James VII in 1687. The fifth Earl fell from favour following the overthrow of James VII in 1689 but his son, Charles, was appointed to the Order in 1731 as were the eighth (1741) and tenth (1827) Earls.

The Earls of Galloway are descended from the Stewarts of Garlies and three Earls of Galloway have been appointed to the Order of the Thistle: the seventh (1775), eighth (1814), and tenth (1888). Like the Earl of Moray the Earl of Galloway use the pelican in its piety as his heraldic crest (it is a quirk of Scots heraldry that, unlike in England, crests to do not have to be unique). One notable feature of the Thistle Chapel is that the crests of the current Knights are displayed above the nineteen stalls. The Order had no Chapel in the nineteenth century but if it had there would have been two versions of the pelican on show in the years 1827-1834. The mottos of the Earls also reflect the imagery of the pelican in its piety and its Christian associations. That of Moray is “salus per christum redemptorem” (salvation through Christ the Redeemer) while Galloway uses “virescit vulnere virtus” (courage gains strength from a wound). In the absence of a clan chief the crest and motto of the Earl of Galloway most commonly serve as the clan badge of the Stewarts.

The ceiling is not the only place in the Thistle Chapel where we can find the pelican in its piety. Another famous feature of the Chapel are the dozens of angels to be found within (all, like the pelican boss, designed by Louis Deuchars) and this includes several hanging lamps of brass which take the form of angels bearing flaming torches. Beneath each lamp, and attached by a chain, is a weight depicting the pelican in its piety. The spread of the pelican’s wings form the shape of a heart – the traditional representation of love or charity, the greatest of the three theological virtues describe by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, which the pelican in its piety exemplifies (faith is traditionally shown as a cross and hope by an anchor. Examples of both can be found in the Thistle Chapel and throughout St Giles’).

Even when St Giles’ is closed there is another part of the church where the pelican in its piety can be seen: it is carved into the wall near a door on the south side of St Giles’ facing onto Parliament Square.