I have a question regarding the Pelican Piety allegory. Is it accurate to inscribe it this way:


For lack of space on artistic scroll work, is this accurate?

  • Please note that it is "pelicane" with only one L. Otherwise, there's nothing to add to @brianpck's answer below.
    – gmvh
    Oct 13 '20 at 16:44

The pelican as a symbol for Christ is extremely old, going back (at least) to the Physiologus, which is usually dated to the 2nd century AD (though some scholars have argued that it was composed in the 4th century). Here, the pelican is said to feed its young with its own blood: it's not hard to see why this was considered a fitting symbol of Christ's death on the cross.

It was used by many authors, of which this article gives several representative examples:

Reference to the pelican and its Christian meaning are found in Renaissance literature: Dante (1321) in the "Paridiso" of his Divine Comedy refers to Christ as "our Pelican." John Lyly in his Euphues (1606) wrote, "Pelicane who striketh blood out of its owne bodye to do others good." Shakespeare (1616) in Hamlet wrote, "To his good friend thus wide, Ill ope my arms / And, like the kind, life-rendering pelican / Repast them with my blood." John Skelton (1529) in his Armorie of Birds, wrote, "Then sayd the Pellycan: When my Byrdts be slayne / With my bloude I them revyve. Scripture doth record / The same dyd our Lord / And rose from deth to lyve."

One of the most famous uses of this symbol, to which your question refers, is from the Christian hymn Adoro te devote, composed by St. Thomas Aquinas for the newly instituted feast of Corpus Christi, c. 1264. The sixth verse goes as follows:

Pie Pelicane, Jesu Domine,
Me immundum munda tuo Sanguine
Cujus una stilla salvum facere
Totum mundum quit ab omni scelere.

(N.B. It seems that the world is evenly split over whether it should be spelled "pelicane" or "pellicane" (two l's).)

A literal translation:

O kind pelican, Lord Jesus
Clean me, who am unclean, with your blood
Of which one drop is able to make
the whole world saved from all sin.

Your version:

Iesu Pie Pelicane

is a perfectly correct rearrangement of the vocative beginning. It means:

Jesus, kind pelican

The answer to your question, "Is it accurate?" depends on what you mean by "accurate":

  • Is it what Thomas Aquinas wrote? No
  • Could the hymn be changed to this wording without a problem? No, because the rhyme and syllable count wouldn't permit this.
  • Is it good Latin that conveys the same sense? Yes.
  • I am very grateful for your explanation. Gives me something more to consider before beginning the work.
    – user6364
    Dec 9 '19 at 20:11

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