Thursday, January 09, 2014

Heraldry and pelicans

click photo to enlarge
When coats of arms and heraldic devices were first conceived animals were widely used symbols. Those chosen were often selected for either their relevance to the family or for their fearsome qualities. Thus, the lion and the eagle are probably the most commonly found mammal and bird. But, as heraldry progressed, a wider range of creatures was used, such as boars, elephants, beavers or stags, and a veritable aviary of birds was put to work representing individuals, organisations and towns on their coats of arms. From the humble martlet (house martin) to the towering ostrich, birds of every description were pressed into service, including the pelican.

Before they featured in heraldry pelicans were used to symbolise Christ's sacrifice on the cross. It was believed that as young pelicans grow they strike their parent on the face with their beaks and the adult bird then kills them. But, after three days mourning the mother pierces her own breast and feeds her blood to the nestlings, which revives them. In an alternate version of this story the young pelicans are poisoned and the adult feeds her blood to bring them back to life. This tale was known from the medieval bestiaries and became part of Christian iconography. It can often be seen in medieval churches as the subject of carving in stone or wood, frequently on the underside of misericords or in ceiling bosses. It is also a popular subject for stained glass as in this Pre-Raphaelite example by Edward Burne-Jones for Morris & Co. that I photographed in the church of St Martin at Brampton, Cumbria.

The coat of arms of the Norfolk town of King's Lynn has been modified down the centuries but has usually included a pelican (though sometimes a gull). A marine bird is very appropriate for a port, and the designer of the late fifteenth century door shown in today's photograph decided it would be suitable as a central embellishment in the ogee arch that he put above the small wicket door in the centre of the larger main door. It's interesting that this door has survived in a secular property since the late 1400s, though it is noticeable that the surrounding woodwork is repaired and the topmost arch is characteristic of the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century.

photograph and text © Tony Boughen

Photo 1
Camera: Sony RX100
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: crop of 10.4mm (28mm - 35mm equiv.)
F No: f1.8
Shutter Speed: 1/30 sec
Exposure Compensation: 0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On