The symbol of the Pelican in Her Piety can be seen in mosaic in the Villa de Matel chapel. Photo taken by My-Ngoc
The symbolism of the mother pelican feeding her little baby pelicans is rooted in an ancient legend that preceded Christianity. The legend was that in time of famine, the mother pelican wounded herself, striking her breast with the beak to feed her young with her blood to prevent starvation. Another version of the legend was that the mother fed her dying young with her blood to revive them from death, but in turn lost her own life. Given this tradition, one can easily see why the early Christians adapted it to symbolize our Lord, Jesus Christ.
The pelican symbolizes Jesus our Redeemer who gave His life for our redemption and the atonement He made through His passion and death. We were dead to sin and have found new life through the Blood of Christ. Moreover, Jesus continues to feed us with His body and blood in the Holy Eucharist.
This tradition and others is found in the Physiologus, an early Christian work that appeared in the second century in Alexandria, Egypt. Written by an anonymous author, the Physiologus recorded legends of animals and gave each an allegorical interpretation. For instance, the phoenix, which burns itself to death and rises on the third day from the ashes, symbolizes Christ who died for our sins and rose on the third day to give us the promise of everlasting life. The unicorn which only allows itself to be captured in the lap of a pure virgin, symbolizes the incarnation. Here too the legend of the pelican feeding her young is described: “The little pelicans strike their parents, and the parents, striking back, kill them. But on the third day the mother pelican strikes and opens her side and pours blood over her dead young. In this way they are revivified and made well. So Our Lord Jesus Christ says also through the prophet Isaiah: I have brought up children and exalted them, but they have despised me (Is 1:2). We struck God by serving the creature rather than the Creator. Therefore He deigned to ascend the cross, and when His side was pierced, blood and water gushed forth unto our salvation and eternal life.”
Excerpted from Saunders, Rev. William, “The Symbolism of the Pelican.” The Arlington Catholic Herald.