A sure sign of spring in the Green Bay area is the arrival of white pelicans along the Fox River. Since 1994, these large water birds have nested here after wintering along the Gulf Coast and in California.
Pelicans are a symbol of Christ, most especially during Holy Week. Ancient legends credited life-giving abilities to the bird.
It was said a pelican could revive its dead chicks by piercing its own breast and covering them with its blood. Both Shakespeare (Hamlet 4.5) and Dante (Paradiso) referenced this legend. A pelican is also found in “Physiologus,” or “Naturalists,” a text written by an anonymous Alexandrian author in the second century and filled with allegories for Christian life.
This legend is why images of pelicans appear in many European churches, such as the mosaic in the Aachen Cathedral in Germany, where Charlemagne (the first Holy Roman Emperor) is buried.
Also in the Aachen Cathedral is the 15th-century bronze “Eagle Lectern.” The eagle is another symbol of Christ that came into Christianity elsewhere, this time from Jewish scriptures. For example, the 40th chapter of Isaiah mentions eagles in reference to the faithful: “they that hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar on eagles’ wings (v. 31).”
The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that pre-Christians believed the eagle could renew itself in old age by plunging three times into a spring. “Hence the primitive Christians, and later the medieval symbolizes, used the eagle as a sign of baptism, the wellspring of salvation, in whose water the neophyte was dipped three times, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
Easter chicks are a popular symbol of Easter, not just because they reflect new life, but because they come from an egg — a hard, seemingly dead shell that breaks open like the tomb broke open for Christ. (This is also why butterflies — which come from cocoons and chrysalises — are symbols of the resurrection.)
But with chicks, which came first? The egg or the bird?
In Matthew’s Gospel, as Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, he refers to himself as being like “a hen (who) gathers her young under her wings” (23:31).
And, speaking of chickens, don’t forget the rooster. While not a symbol of Christ as such, this loud morning bird heralds the sunrise, and played a role in Jesus’ Passion, when it crowed after Peter’s three denials of the Lord — just as Jesus had predicted.
Several birds are linked by legends and traditions to the suffering of Jesus on the cross. These include the robin, with its breast dyed red, because it is said to have tried to pull a thorn from Christ’s brow and the blood stained its feathers.
In his 1923 book on folklore (“Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore”), naturalist Ernest Ingersoll notes this legend was changed in Scandinavia, with the robin becoming the red crossbill. But there it is said that the bird’s beak was also twisted from the eff ort of trying to pull out the nails. Ingersoll notes most of the cross and bird legends trace to Sweden, including the swallow, which is called the “bird of consolation” because it swooped around the cross as Jesus died.
Ingersoll also mentioned a Spanish legend that says the owl now avoids the daylight because of what it saw that day on Calvary.
Because the European goldfinch has red face markings as well as white and black markings on its wing feathers resembling nails, it, too, is associated with the cross. The bird became a popular art subject in the 14th to 15th centuries, such as in Raphael’s “Madonna of the Goldfinch.”
The mourning dove, with its sad-sounding cry, is another reminder of Christ’s Passion.
Less known may be the peacock, which, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, appeared both in Byzantine art and the Romanesque art that followed it. This was because, in the ancient world of Greece and Rome, it was believed that the peacock’s flesh never decayed. St. Augustine referred to this belief in his fifth-century book “City of God.”
The final, and totally mythical bird, is the phoenix. Even though the phoenix does not exist, it was depicted as a symbol of the resurrection in Christian churches, including on a mosaic in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. St. Clement, writing in the first century after Christ, called this legendary bird a “wonderful sign” of the resurrection. According to legend, the phoenix lived for centuries, finally building a nest in which it dies. Then the nest bursts into flames from which the renewed bird rises.
So, when you think of butterflies and eggs this Easter, think of the birds as well.
Sources: “City of God;” “A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art;” “The Catholic Source Book;” “The Catholic Encyclopedia” and “Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore” and “The Old English Physiologus” at gutenberg.org