Thursday, 11 June 2020

Reading Stained Glass: Corpus Christi and the Pelican

A wonderful bird is the pelican …’* Anyone who only knew about pelicans from this celebrated limerick might be forgiven for smiling at the mere thought of these rather bizarre birds. But the pelican, along with the dove and the eagle, is one of the most important symbols in Christian iconography. I believe his earliest appearance in stained glass - though from now on I must say ‘her’, not ‘his’ – is in Chartres Cathedral (fig.ii) in the 13th century ‘Redemption window’ where a pelican, with wings outstretched, pecks at her breast to allow her chicks to feed on her blood. The seated king, looking on, is David, and in his hand he holds a long scroll with the inscription ‘Similis factus sum pellicamo’ (from Psalm 102: ‘I am become like the pelican in the wilderness’). So this one image both looks back to the Old Testament, foreshadowing of the loneliness of Jesus in the wilderness, and forward to the crucifixion and the redemptive shedding of Christ’s own blood. The pelican becomes established as the symbol of Corpus Christi, the body [and blood] of Christ. The feast of
Corpus Christi is always observed on the second Thursday after Whit Sunday. In the later middle ages, this was an important public holiday, celebrated with processions, pageants and mystery plays performed by members of the different Guilds. All long gone, now, but the pelican remains.


From then until now, the elements of the symbol – the bird, the blood, the chicks and the nest –

hardly change. They appear throughout Europe not only in stained glass but in stone and wood carving too, for instance on a 15th century misericord in Cartmel Priory (Cumberland; fig. iii).


Oxford and Cambridge each have a Corpus Christi College, and an heraldic pelican appears on the arms of both. At Cambridge the college was founded in 1352 jointly by the Guild of Corpus Christi and the Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary, hence the shield is quartered between the pelican and the lilies that are the symbol of Mary. At Oxford, Corpus Christi was founded in 1517 by Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester, whose own crest was a golden pelican. There is a splendid 16th century sundial in the College quad, surmounted by a pelican in her piety.


The pelican is one of the very few pre-Reformation religious symbols to have survived the upheavals in English church life during the 16th and 17th centuries. Later, indeed, she enjoyed a dramatic revival in stained glass during the 19th century. A remarkable image in an early (1864) window by  Morris & Co at Bradford Cathedral depicts the pelican in graphic, almost comical, close-up (fig.iv:) staring – or glaring? –  down her beak at the first rubber-necked chick, she struggles to steer a glob of blood towards his gaping mouth while the other two wait eagerly for their turn. 


The range of textures and patterns in this image is worth our attention. At the base flowers and grass reach up around the neatly woven wicker basket of a nest in which the downy chicks appear half submerged in hay. The dark blue background is an intricate pattern of tiny quatrefoils created out of a lattice work of black lines and dashes, all painted on by hand. Looking carefully, you can see one or two places where the design goes wrong. At the top the wavy grey-green clouds are actually the only indication that this is a religious symbol at all: clouds represented like this, though rather less freehand than here, always denoted in medieval glass the clouds of heaven and William Morris was careful to follow that precedent. The artist who designed this window was Morris’s close friend, Philip Webb.  


At Much Marcle in Herefordshire she appears above the Crucifixion scene in the church’s East

window (fig.v), designed in 1877 for Charles Eamer Kempe by Wyndham Hope Hughes. This design clearly shows Kempe’s debt to the Chartres pelican, but with the rather neat added touch that the nest is drawn as the cup of an acorn and the bird perches on a branch of oak leaves.  


No artist in the 19th century paid more attention to the pelican than Kempe, for whom the bird had a special significance. That Kempe often signed his windows with a wheatsheaf – one of the elements of his family’s coat of arms – is well known; much less well known is that the crest on top of the Kempe shield depicts a pelican pecking at a wheatsheaf. For Kempe, this image had a key symbolic significance. He had originally hoped to be ordained as an Anglican priest, but a severe stammer prevented this and after leaving university he decided to develop a career in church decoration and stained glass. Throughout his career he believed that he had a special vocation to teach and indeed to preach through his windows. What he could not say from the pulpit because of his stammer, he could express though stained glass.  It is no surprise that the poet George Herbert meant a great deal to him:


Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one

            When they combine and mingle, bring

A strong regard and awe; but speech alone

            Doth vanish like a flaring thing …. (‘The Windows’)


He came indeed to see the wheatsheaf and the pelican, his personal crest, ( as an endorsement of his vocation, for together they are emblematic of the Eucharist – the wheatsheaf representing the bread and the pelican, the wine. No other stained glass designer invested the pelican with greater presence, nor saw the bird so clearly as the embodiment of Christ. Whenever you see a pelican in a window, look also for the text accompanying it. If this reads ‘Ihesus pelicanus noster’ (Jesus our Pelican; fig.i - see above) the window is by Kempe.


© Adrian Barlow


*A wonderful bird is the pelican: 

His bill can hold more than his belly can.

He can keep in his beak

Enough food for a week

But I’m blowed if I know how the hell he can!

              Dixon Lanier Merritt (1910)


You can read more about the significance of the pelican in my book, Kempe: the Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe (2018)



Fig. i:  Pelican in her Piety by John Carter for C.E. Kempe, in St Botolph’s Church, Cambridge, 1889

Fig. ii: King David and the Pelican in her Piety, Chartres Cathedral, 13th century

Fig. iii: Pelican in her Piety, carved misericord seat in Cartmel Priory, 15th century

Fig.iv: Pelican in her Piety (by Philip Webb, for Morris & Co.) Bradford Cathedral, 1864

Fig v: Pelican in her Piety, by Wyndham Hope Hughes for C.E. Kempe, St Bartholomew’s Church, Much Marcle, 1877 Kempe’s Bookplate, depicting the Pelican and the Wheatsheaf


All photographs © the author.