“Pelican in its Piety” seal matrix

Photo: North Lincolnshire Museum CC By SA2.0
Object type: Seal Matrix
Period: Medieval
Primary material: Copper alloy
Date found: 14/10/2021
Location: East Lindsey, Lincolnshire

Description

A seal matrix dating to 1250-1300 depicting a pelican feeding its young with the inscription SVM PELLI CAnVS DEI meaning “I am the divine pelican“. This is a representation of the Pelican in its Piety.

Pelican in its Piety

In pre-Christian times, it was believed that the Pelican fed its young with her own blood by making a wound in her chest. In fact the pelican has a pouch attached to their under-bill in which it macerates small fish by pressing the bag against its breast. It is the blood of the fish that is then visible on her chest.

The myth was expanded in Christian times when St. Hieronymus gave the story of the pelican restoring its young ones with her blood when they were destroyed by serpents. Because of that belief, the pelican became a major symbol of self-sacrifice and charity and an emblem of Jesus. Early Christians had adopted it by the 2nd century and started using it in texts and images. It was such a popular image that it appeared in stained glass, paintings, bench ends, misericords and various carvings in wood and stone all around Europe.

One of Elizabeth I’s most famous portraits is called the The Pelican Portrait as she is wearing a brooch of a pelican piercing its own chest to symbolise the sacrifices she made to protect and nurture the country.