News of a recent change in the Louisiana State Flag highlights the Eucharistic origin of its pelican symbol. The simple addition of three small drops of blood make it very clear that the pelican is not simply feeding her chicks; rather, she’s nourishing them with her own lifeblood. Below is a small “Did You Know?” feature that we printed in From the Housetops many years ago, under the title “The Louisiana State Flag bears a symbol of the Blessed Eucharist”:
The “Pelican in Her Piety” has long been used in Catholic art to represent Our Blessed Lord in the Sacrament of the Altar. The earliest use of this symbol appears to be in the patristic volume, Physiologus, written in the second century of the Christian Era. The pelican is only one of the animals used in this book to represent important persons and mysteries of the Faith. Among the others are the phoenix, representing the resurrected Christ; and the unicorn, which can be captured only in the lap of a virgin, symbolizing the Incarnation of Our Lord in the virginal womb of Mary.
In the Physiologus, the pelican is portrayed as giving life to her dead children by heroically tearing open her own chest to pour her blood on them. The symbol is truly a beautiful allegory of Holy Communion, by which Our Lord pours on us His life-giving Blood so that we might live by His grace, for without it we are surely dead: Unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you (John 6:54).
After its early appearance in the patristic period, the symbol became very popular in the Church, especially in the Middle Ages. In his stirring hymn to the Blessed Sacrament, Lauda Sion, Saint Thomas Aquinas calls Our Lord the Pie Pelicane, or “Holy Pelican.” Dante Alighieri, the celebrated Florentine poet, calls Him Nostro Pelicano (“Our Pelican”) in his Divine Commedy.
Catholic liturgical art is full of representations of this figure. Altar frontals, monstrances, chalices, paintings, engravings, stain-glass windows, and vestments were commonly adorned with this symbol of Our Lord. Pre-Reformation England boasted a monastery in the city of Durham that had a tabernacle in the form of a silver pelican suspended from the ceiling over the high altar. Presumably, it was melted and sold when the “reformers” savaged the monastery.
The Louisiana State Flag dates back to 1812, thought it wasn’t officially adopted until 1912. Underneath the picture of the pelican are the words “Union Justice Confidence.” When, in 1938, Roger Baudier, a Catholic historian and newspaperman in New Orleans, researched the history of the seal, he concluded that his research indicated “very strongly the Catholic origin of the pelican in our state seal.” Baudier was undoubtedly working from rather sketchy details of Louisiana state history. The Catholic origin of the symbol is incontestable, since the subject itself is a uniquely Catholic one.