Over the centuries, a few birds and mythical fowl were adopted by Christians to symbolize Jesus and His saving actions. The Pelican and the Phoenix quickly became commonplace in the Church’s frescoes, murals and church architecture. In modern times, we have begun to lose sight of these symbols through realism and rationalism. They are timeless and help us appreciate the attempts to express the nature of our Lord and His Christ.
St. Thomas Aquinas addresses our Lord with “Pelican of Mercy, cleanse me in Thy Precious Blood,” in his hymn Adoro Te. Found often in Christian frescoes, murals and stained glass, the Pelican is a symbol of the atonement and the Redeemer. It was believed that the pelican would wound itself in order to feed its young with its own blood. Shakespeare even alludes to this belief in Act IV of Hamlet, “To his good friend thus wide I’ll open my arms and, like the kind, life-rendering pelican, Repast them with my blood.”
The mythical creature of the Phoenix has also become a symbol of the resurrection since antiquity. A legend that is believed to have found “life” in Egyptian lore, it quickly was Christianized and became a symbol in Christian art to illustrate Jesus’ purposeful choice to carry His cross and His victory over death. The Phoenix is believed to have built a nest when old, and set it on fire. It would then rise from the ashes in victory. Other cultures that include the phoenix myth are the Greeks and Orientals.