The Pelican Brief

by David Clayton on October 8, 2010

Should we resurrect the old Christian symbolism? Is there a danger that trying to reestablish traditional Christian symbols in art would sow confusion rather that clarity? Lots of talks and articles about traditional Christian art I see discuss the symbolism of the iconographic content; for example, the meaning of the acacia bush (the immortality of the soul) or the peacock (again, immortality). This is useful if we have a printed (or perhaps for a few of you an original) Old Master in church or a prayer corner as it will enhance our prayer life when contemplating the image. But is this something that we ought to be aiming to reinstate the same symbolism in what we produce today? Should we seek to educate artists to include this symbolic language in their art?

If symbols are meant to communicate and clarify, they should be readily understood by those who see them. This might have been the case when they were introduced – very likely they reflected aspects of the culture at the time – and afterwards when the tradition was still living and so knowledge of this was handed on. But for most it isn’t true now. How many would recognize the characteristics of an acacia bush, never mind what it symbolizes? If you ask someone today who has not been educated in traditional Christian symbolism in art what the peacock means, my guess is that they are more likely to suggest pride, referring to the expression, ‘as proud as peacock’. So the use of the peacock would not clarify, in fact it would do worse than mystify, it might actually mislead. (The reason for the use of the peacock as a symbol of immortality, as I understand it, is the ancient belief that its flesh was incorruptible). So to reestablish this sign language would be a huge task. We would not only have to educate the artists, but also educate everyone for whom the art was intended to read the symbolism. If this is the case, why bother at all, it doesn’t seem to helping very much, and in the end it will always exclude those who are not part of the cognoscenti . This is exactly the opposite of what is desired: for the greater number, it would not draw them into contemplation of the Truth, but push them out.

I think that the answer is that some symbols are worth persevering with, and some should be abandoned. First, it is part of our nature to ‘read’ invisible truths through what is visible. This does not only apply to painting. The whole of Creation is made by God as an outward ‘sign’ that points to something beyond itself to Him, the Creator. Blessed John Henry Newman put it in his sermon Nature and Supernature as follows: “The visible world is the instrument, yet the veil, of the world invisible – the veil, yet still partially the symbol and index; so that all that exists or happens visibly, conceals and yet suggests, and above all subserves, a system of persons, facts, and events beyond itself.” It is important to both to make use of this faculty that exists in us for just this purpose; and to develop it, increasing our instincts for reading the book of nature and in turn, our faith.

However, coming back to the context of art again, some discernment should be used, I suggest. I would not be in favour of creating an arbitrarily self-consistent symbolism. The symbol must be rooted in truth. The symbolism in the iconographic tradition is very good at following this principle. This is best illustrated by considering the example of the halo. This is very well known as the symbol of sanctity in sacred art. There are very good reasons for this. The golden disc is a stylized representation of a glow of uncreated, divine light, shining out of the person. Even if this were not already a widely known symbol, it would be worth educating people about the meaning of it, because in doing so something more is revealed. When however, the representation of a halo develops into a disc floating above the head of the saint, as in Cosme Tura’s St Jerome, or even a hoop, as in Annibale Caracci’s Dead Christ Mourned, (both shown) then it seems to me that the symbol has become detached from its root. Neither could be seen as a representation of uncreated light. These latter two forms, therefore, should be discouraged.

Similarly, those symbols that are rooted in the gospels or in the actual lives of the saints should be encouraged and the effort should be made, I think, to preserve or, if necessary, reestablish them. The tongs and coal of the prophet Isaias relate to the biblical accounts of his life. The inclusion of these, will generate a healthy curiosity in those who don’t know it, and so might direct them to investigate scripture. The picture shown, incidentally, is one that I did as a demonstration piece for our recent summer school at Thomas More College in New Hampshire.

In contrast consider the peacock and the pelican. The peacock, as already mentioned, does not, we now know, have incorruptible flesh. The pelican is a symbol of the Eucharist based upon the erroneous belief in former times that pelicans feed their young with their own flesh. The immediate reaction is that these should not be used (I am not aware of any biblical reference to these two creatures that would justify it). However, I am torn by the fact that both of these are beautiful and striking images, even if based in myth.

Also, it might be argued, and this is particularly true for the pelican, that to use it is not resurrecting an obscure medieval symbol. It is an ancient symbol certainly – and St Thomas Aquinas’s hymn to the Eucharist, Adore te devote called Christ the ‘pelican of mercy’. But it lasted well beyond that. It was very widely understood even 50 years ago. Awareness of it is still common nowadays amongst those who are interested in liturgy and sacred art. Perhaps an argument could be made that even when the reason for the use of symbol is based in myth, if that is known and understood, and when that symbol recognition is still widespread enough to be considered part of the tradition, it should be retained. We should also remember that modern science is not infallible, and we moderns could be those who are mistaken about the pelican! My Googling research (admittedly even less reliable than modern science) revealed that the coat of arms of Cardinal George Pell has the image of the pelican. If this is so, I imagine he would have something to say about the issue also!

A baroque period (17th century) tabernacle door

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Missy October 9, 2010 at 7:52 am

I think we should keep the symbols and learn what they mean. Aside from the fact that words are symbols of ideas and we should have no compunction about looking up an unfamiliar word, many young people today use pictures and symbols to communicate. They are more comfortable with symbols than words, probably because a picture is worth a thousand words in their eyes–it gets the message across more quickly…

There are many fine books that discuss Christian symbolism. I have a copy of Signs and Symbols of Christian Art by George Ferguson that is very helpful. Pairing the symbols with words appropriate to them makes fine material for meditation. For example, when I see the image of Isaias, I think of the Mass and the Munda Cor Meum, and then the Bible verse you painted in.

I am concerned that if one removes the symbols, since the words have already been excised from shared memory, then the meaning is lost.

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davidicons October 9, 2010 at 11:21 am

Thank you for your comment. I think I agree with you if the choice is one of jettisoning or keeping the symbols. But my feeling is that these are effectively already lost to the tradition. They are no longer readily understood by artists or anyone else. There are exceptions of course, such as yourself, but you are, I think in a very small minority. Reinstituting a whole system of symbolism and educating virtually all Catholics about their meanings is a huge job. We should try, but given the size of the task the question is, where do we start? I say, with those that are rooted in scripture or, as best as we are able to determine, a true reflection of nature.

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laura October 12, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Over time words become obsolete or their meanings change. There were discussions about the use of the word “brethren” in the new Missal, the argument being that today the word is not understood to include both brothers and sisters, and we certainly don’t go around calling each other “sibling.” The writers had to decide if the word was ever appropriate and what could replace it to convey what was needed. The same process stands in using symbols, so I see no problem in introducing new ones to our visual language. We live in a highly visual world and picking up meaning through icons, logos, and other visual cues have become second nature.

It is the truth to which it points that is everlasting, not necessarily the symbol chosen to convey it. If an old symbol is still useful, use it, if not, reject it. Using the above examples of pelican, peacock, and acacia bush, I would still use pelican to refer to self-sacrifice and Eucharist. There is no other meaning I can think of that we use pelican for, it has lasted just about to today, and I can overlook the now known mistaken belief it was based on at the time. Besides, some pelicans do have a red spot on their chest, they do hold their head against their chest, and they are familiar around the world. As beautiful as the peacock is, I wouldn’t choose it to symbolize immortality because there are so many other and ingrained connotations that come up when we think of a peacock. The acacia bush is too esoteric and unfair to the viewer, unless we want what we are trying to say to be understood by only a select smattering.

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davidicons October 13, 2010 at 6:44 am

Hi Laura, great comment. Thank you.

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JohnLA March 24, 2011 at 3:19 pm

As a resident of Louisiana (see our state flag here, recently redesigned with blood droplets http://redesignrelated.com/post/1655658681/louisiana-state-flag-new-redesign), I would say that the Pelican is very well know in our nation, or at least, on its southern shores. Down here, many (if not most) Catholics know that the Pelican is a symbol of Christ.
…Just a latecomer adding his thoughts…

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