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Flora & Fauna of Trinity: Pelicans

Beverly Crawford and Peter Smiledge
January 26, 2017

One of the happy results of H.H. Richardson’s design of Trinity is a very open chancel that welcomes worshippers and enables close examination of its elegant layers of symbolic decoration. The next time you make your way up to the altar, take a moment to look for some of these symbols and consider their meaning.   

On the wall of the apse directly behind the altar at Trinity Church, we find an intriguing image - a pelican with her babies. Looking closely, we see that the pelican appears to be pecking at its breast and that drops of its blood are falling into the gaping mouths of the chicks. 

This image of the pelican is another symbol for Christ and the Eucharist. Often called “The Pelican in Her Piety,” this symbol has its origin in pre-Christian mythology. It was believed that, in a time of famine, the pelican would, out of deep love for its young, peck at its side to feed its offspring with its own blood. Adopted by early Christians as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice and  a representation of Holy Communion, this evocative image is often found in stained glass windows, murals, heraldry, and paintings.

The elegant, art deco image of the pelican in the Trinity Church chancel is one of the many natural images incorporated into this part of the church as part of the 1938 redecoration. This is one of seven small panels that accompany the series of gilt inscriptions that are carved into the green marble that sheathes the apse wall. Chosen by the Reverend Arthur Kinsolving, the Trinity rector at the time of the redecoration project, these panels and the texts represent elements of Christian doctrine, with the pelican symbolizing the Eucharist.

Buildings often have decorative elements that are simply part of the vocabulary of a particular architectural style. Everywhere at Trinity Church, however, symbols such as our pelican provide much more than mere decoration. They contribute a visual dimension to our worship, help focus our thinking, and connect us to the roots of our faith.


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