Christ the Unicorn, Christ the Pelican

Tyler Versluis   -  

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed!

Christianity’s rich use of symbolism is one of greatest draws- whether in its liturgy, history, architecture or art, it stirs the heart in ways that words and logic fail to accomplish. As the Easter season unfolds, we witness the many symbols of the season, particularly for Christ himself: the “passover lamb”, the “good shepherd”, the “Alpha and Omega”… the list is long and plentiful.

And now, here is the Easter hymn Unicornis Captivatur  from the 14th century Engelberg Codex, in which Christ is symbolically portrayed in a number of ways- a unicorn, a sleeping lion, a phoenix, and… a pelican! We’ll unpack these portrayals, but first let’s listen:

Lieselot de Wilde, voice

Catalina Vicens, organ

The Unicorn is captured,
It’s presented to the royal court
In the hunters’ snare;
Creeping, it freed itself from the pole;
Because it’s wounded, it heals itself
With the viper’s venom.
Sing Alleluia
To the dying lamb;
Sing Alleluia,
Cry Alleluia
To the victorious Lion.
Life returns to the wounded Pelican
After miserable death
In its nest for the sins of the world.
The Phoenix’ light is burnt out,
The ancient sins of the world
Are utterly consumed by flame.
[Sing Alleluia…]
The Hydra enters the crocodile,
Deprives it of its entrails, kills it,
And comes back alive.
Three days long
the Lion slept till the King
Awakened it with a roar.
[Sing Alleluia…]

The Phoenix and Lion are the most obvious metaphors here, so let’s move to the eponymous animal mentioned in this beautiful hymn. The Unicorn, surprisingly, has a special place in Christian allegory. Did you know that unicorns are even mentioned in the Authorized King James translation of the Bible (although they were probably referring to rhinoceroses)? In medieval times unicorns were considering animals of beauty, rarity and grace. In some sources they would only appear to maidens of particular chasteness and purity, hence the symbolism of Christ as the unicorn and the Virgin Mary as the maiden.
Christ as the Pelican is also another popular medieval allegory, although today it is hard to see why. Christ as a Pelican is also mentioned in Thomas Aquinas’ substantial eucharistic poem, “Adoro Te Devote”:
Lord Jesus, Good Pelican, clean me, the unclean, with Your Blood,
One drop of which can heal the entire world of all its sins.
So, what’s behind this symbolism? In Thomas Aquinas’ day, the pelican was considered the most motherly of birds, extremely protective and willing to go to extreme lengths to feed and care for their offspring. According to medieval writers, a pelican would even pierce its own breast in order to nourish its young on blood. And now the parallels and allegory towards Christ are revealed.
-Tyler Versluis