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.





  1. Thank you once more, Adrian, for a fine essay, full of minute particulars while maintaining a broad historical scope.

    Can you clarify one thing? You write '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.'

    Does the 'long gone' refer specifically to England and the UK?

    It's still a big occasion in Austria. When we were there in June 2018, marking my seventieth birthday and visiting a farming family with whom our connections go back to before WW1, I wrote:

    '...And then, and then, Margit insisted that we must call on them on Thursday morning before heading off to Vienna. It was Fronleichnam [Corpus Christi] so all the shops were closed. The procession in Edlach wasn't until Sunday although there was one in Prein. So we didn't see what Joseph Roth so unforgettably describes in Radetzkymarsch, and there are anyway no emperors left to celebrate or be celebrated, although the Habsburg presence in Reichenau and Edlach is still palpable. [I'll repeat the story about Otto Habsburg and my mother another time.]...'

    In fact, the retired farmer - a couple of years older than me - wasn't at the farm as he had gone to the Fronleichnam celebrations in Gloggnitz, the little town where we stayed as children.

    It felt very much of a contemporary thing. Anything that closes all the shops needs to be noticed.

    Thanks again for a fine read!

  2. Dear Adrian Thank you for this great story about the background of celebrating Corpus a Catholic child and adult Up to the 80ies this was a big christian holiday. We had a big procession in our parish and the priest with all his prettiest tunical led the procession with several stops at communion tables.
    In my childhood we where all dressed nicely. Mainly with our first communion dresses and walked with them. Well this is all gone. Our churches are closing down.
    Times are changing.
    Your essay was a moment to reflect on all this.
    Thank you.
    Best Felicitas Freisenhaus

  3. Many thanks, Felicitas, for these memories of how Corpus Christi used to be celebrated. I share your sense of loss that these traditional ways of marking the festivals of the year have disappeared.


  4. Adrian, I find myself, for the first time I think, bringing a skull to the table! I see from the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable that the symbolism of the pelican in its piety is derived from an ‘ancient legend’. But that a pelican should be depicted feeding its young with droplets of blood pecked from its breast, has always struck me as somehow chilling. A thought that occurred to me I found echoed on the web: ‘Maybe an onlooker saw one [a pelican] preening and got the wrong idea.’ And why is blood seen as more important than air, or any of our other vital organs?

    Even the poppy symbolises (memorialises) more than bloodshed: injury, disfigurement, shell shock—the grim lottery which is conflict’s bitter stock in trade. The poppy is so plangent—that bright flower with which the battlefields of the First World War in particular were bestrewn. But did the infantrymen exchange their ‘life–blood / for the Papaver’s striking hue’? If so, it was mostly in vain. Our poor, long–suffering planet is soaked with the blood of past and present battles. So why equate blood with the numinous? Blood is matter, or it is nothing (and matter is as complex and mysterious as ever we could hope for). And for the poor old pelican?—my picture of this bird is forever blighted! The stained glass colours of so many depictions of the pelican in its piety almost make words redundant, but the image I would happily never see again.

  5. Thank you Adrian, this is such a nice addition to the pelican material in your Kempe biography - and a reminder of the Kempe window in St. Botolph’s in Cambridge, where the draughtsmanship and colouring of Kempe glass can be so clearly seen.

  6. PS ...the above comment was mine, by the way! Ann

  7. would you believe that this symbol survives in South Indian towns still. "The Ragland Memorial church in Sivakasi preserves the memory of one whom the Indian church has never forgotten. The four silver cups, engraved with the pelican (the symbol of Corpus Christi College); which he had won while a young man as mathematical prizes at Cambridge, are still in use as chalices in the churches of that northern Tirunelveli
    which he loved and for whieh he gave his life."
    And a small Catholic church in a seaside village named Enayam bears the pelican in her piety sculpted proudly in its facade.
    St. Helen Church !
    Lovely write up