View from the Lantern: Spot the Pelican
Canon Sidney Connolly of St Nicholas' Cathedral, Newcastle, writes -
No, I’m not about to tell you a story about a pelican called Spot. Nor am I suggesting that you make a mark on the next pelican you come across. Rather, this is an invitation to discover depictions of the pelican and her young in glass, wood and stone in various locations in the Cathedral.
The legend of the pelican goes back to before the Christian era. It was said that, in time of famine, the mother pelican, with her long, sharp beak, would wound herself, drawing forth droplets of blood with which she would feed her young and thus ensure their survival. Some versions of the story say that the mother died in order that the young would live on. It is not difficult to see how this legend of self-sacrifice would appeal to the Christian mind, recalling the sacrifice made through the shedding of our Lord’s blood as he died on the cross in order that we, his disciples, may have life in all its fullness. The legend also became associated with the Eucharist, in which Christians receive new life through Jesus, feeding by faith on his body and blood.
Artistic representations of “The Pelican in her Piety” (as they became known) can be seen in our churches and cathedrals, and in St Nicholas’ Cathedral you can find at least three. There may be more, as I have not been able to explore the north side of the building because of the work that is continuing on the installation of the new lighting system. That will be coming to an end fairly soon, we confidently hope.
In glass, you can spot a pelican in the fine window in the Chapel of the Ascension (pictured above, photo © Janice Tostevin). It is in the bottom of the centre of the window, underneath the Alpha and Omega. The mother is seen in the nest with her little ones beneath her. The window was designed by the renowned stained glass artist Leonard Evetts, and installed in 1962 in thanksgiving for the preservation of the Cathedral during the Second World War.
In stone, you can spot a pelican on a memorial on the wall near the vestry door. The monument is dedicated to the memory of Henry Askew and his wife Dorothy. They are described, rather intriguingly, as the “protectors of twelve orphan nephews and nieces”. I wonder what is the story behind that act of charity and possible self-sacrifice? The pelican is seen clearly at the bottom of the memorial.
In wood, you need to go to the intricately-carved choir stalls and spot the pelican there. The stalls were made by Ralph Hedley in the 19th century, though they look much older because he carved them in the medieval tradition, taking as his inspiration those in the cathedrals in Exeter and Carlisle, dating from the 15th century. The pew-end nearest the Bishop’s throne has a traditional interpretation of the legend of “The Pelican in Her Piety”.
It would be interesting to know in how many of our parish churches you can spot the pelican in wood or stone or glass – or, indeed, any other medium. Happy spotting!
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