NARRATOR (Clive Russell): There’s enough blood on the lower part of the right-hand page to make it a crime scene. Who is the victim and who is the perpetrator? In the bestiary, pelicans had a rather violent relationship to their young, and this bloodletting was a common story portrayed in manuscripts and other works of art. Combined with the bright stars in the background and markings on the birds, this page seems to vibrate with energy.
In case you haven’t heard the pelican’s story, keep listening.
If you want to reflect on divine sacrifice, seek out the pelican. Of all creatures, this bird represents the ultimate in suffering for a spiritual higher cause.
There are at least two key bestiary tales that exemplify its tendency towards sacrifice.
As the best-known story goes, a pelican gives birth to a brood of young chicks. As they grow, they become violent, and attempt to peck out their mother’s eyes and mutilate her. In anger she retaliates, striking them dead. After three days, she regrets killing them. She pierces her own side with her beak. Her dripping blood revives and nourishes her young brood. They live because she suffered for their sake.
Medieval lore also had the pelicans living in Egypt (which actually is true), where they allegedly ate lizards and even crocodiles (!)—both symbols of the devil. Serpents of all sizes reminded medieval audiences of the form the devil took in the Book of Genesis to tempt Eve in the Garden of Eden. By devouring these demons, the righteous pelican helped purify the world of sin.
The standard medieval depiction of the pelican shows her with her head bowed, and beak angled inward, piercing her breast as three chicks await nourishment from her blood in a nest beneath her. This instantly recognizable symbol adorned not only manuscripts but also church architecture and objects—everything from doorways to altars to crosses.