Are bloodsucking pelicans a Dutch Jewish symbol?

Amsterdam's Portuguese Jewish community adopted a seemingly strange image from Medieval Christian art

Illustration from a mid-15th century manuscript depicting a Pelican piercing its own breast so that its young may drink from its blood. (photo credit: COURTESY: MUSEUM MEERMANNO/THE HAAG/MMW/10 B 25/FOLIO 32R)
Illustration from a mid-15th century manuscript depicting a Pelican piercing its own breast so that its young may drink from its blood.
(photo credit: COURTESY: MUSEUM MEERMANNO/THE HAAG/MMW/10 B 25/FOLIO 32R)
A bleeding pelican who wounds its breast and feeds its three young birds with its own blood is an unusual type of decoration in a synagogue.
In church art, on the contrary, this very image appears not infrequently. The source of the iconography is in all probability the Physiologus, a collection of moralized beast tales from Late Antiquity.

Originally written in Greek (though none of the original versions have survived) and translated into Latin, it was later introduced into most European languages, and is also known as Bestiary.
Pelican feeding her own blood to her young, as depicted in a late 13th century French manuscript. (Photo credit: Getty Center/Public Domain)Pelican feeding her own blood to her young, as depicted in a late 13th century French manuscript. (Photo credit: Getty Center/Public Domain)
Despite its name, it was not a book of natural history, but rather one which intended to illustrate the metaphorical meanings – and more specifically the Christian allegorical meanings – which the writers believed to have been embedded in nature.
The book became extremely popular in various editions during the Middle Ages and was often illustrated. The pelican does not appear in all versions of the book, but it appears that the basic concept of the ‘behavior’ of the pelican was already established in the early Middle Ages.
In the 7th century, Isidor of Seville wrote in Etymologies (Book 12, 7:26):
    “The pelican is an Egyptian bird that lives in the solitude of the river Nile. It is said […] that she kills her offspring and grieves for them for three days, then wounds herself and sheds her blood to revive her sons.”
Of all possible images, the Jewish Portuguese community in Amsterdam chose none other than the bleeding Pelican as its symbol.
What is the reason for this peculiar choice?
In Christian art the pelican is symbolic and metaphoric, with a specific reference both to the self-sacrifice of Jesus and to the idea of resurrection.
A medieval depiction of this scene appears in a 12th century capital decoration in the so-called "Room of the Last Supper" on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. The capital dates to the time of the crusades and shows elements characteristic of the Romanesque style. The choice to use a symbol of self-sacrifice to decorate the room which the crusaders believed to be the site of the last supper is not surprising.
Decorative capital in “David’s Tomb” on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. (Photo credit: Diklah Zohar)Decorative capital in “David’s Tomb” on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. (Photo credit: Diklah Zohar)
It is sometimes difficult to identify the bird as a pelican, yet most of the pelican depictions in medieval Christian art do not actually resemble the bird at all.
It seems as though the artists were not aware of the actual appearance of the pelican or that the natural appearance of the bird did not matter, as long as it expressed the theological message.
In some manuscripts, the pelican appears as a bird of prey. In other examples, such as the pelican decorating the dress of Queen Victoria I in a 1575 portrait now at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, however, it much more resembles a swan:
Nicholas Hilliard’s “Pelican Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth I, ca. 1575. (Photo credit: National Library of Israel)Nicholas Hilliard’s “Pelican Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth I, ca. 1575. (Photo credit: National Library of Israel)
The clear Christian message of the image makes it quite surprising to find the image in Jewish art. The history of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam may clarify the reason for this choice.
The Sephardi-Portuguese community arrived in the Netherlands after the signing of the Union of Utrecht (1579), a declaration of religious tolerance which created an inviting set of circumstances for Jews to settle in the Netherlands and particularly in Amsterdam.
The earliest Sephardi community in Amsterdam was ‘Beth Jacob’ (named after Jacob Tirado, also known as Guimes Lopez da Costa, whose house the community used as a synagogue). The second was Neve Shalom, founded in 1608. Ten years later, Beth Jacob was split, and a third community, Beth Israel, was founded. In 1639, these three communities merged together under the name Kahal Kodesh Talmud Torah.
Painting of the interior of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam by Emanuel de Witte, ca. 1680. (Photo credit: Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)Painting of the interior of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam by Emanuel de Witte, ca. 1680. (Photo credit: Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)
Before the unification, the symbol of the Neve Shalom community was the phoenix, which continued to be used afterwards as well, appearing on ketubbot (Jewish marriage contracts) in Amsterdam throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Phoenix appearing on a ketubbah from Amsterdam, 1808. (Photo credit: Rosenthaliana Collections – Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)Phoenix appearing on a ketubbah from Amsterdam, 1808. (Photo credit: Rosenthaliana Collections – Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)
This legendary bird, which appears in Greek mythology and in the Talmud, also found its way into the medieval beast books and Christian iconography. According to the myth, the phoenix has an extremely long life, but dies into flames from which it is reborn.
Both the phoenix and the self-sacrificing pelican appear in the frontispiece of this 1749 edition of Musaeum Hermeticum, a compendium of alchemical texts. (Photo credit: National Library of Israel collections)Both the phoenix and the self-sacrificing pelican appear in the frontispiece of this 1749 edition of Musaeum Hermeticum, a compendium of alchemical texts. (Photo credit: National Library of Israel collections)
The idea of regeneration from the flames probably appealed to the Sephardi-Portuguese Jews, who recognized the parallels in their own history, as their ancestors suffered greatly at the hands of the Inquisition, including the auto da fe – execution by burning alive. The symbol of rebirth from the ashes – which can be seen as an allegory for building a new Jewish life in Amsterdam free of the fears that tormented Jews in Spain and Portugal – undoubtedly had its historic appeal.

Phoenix appearing as a decorative element at the bottom of an 18th century portrait. (Photo credit: Sidney Edelstein Collection, National Library of Israel)Phoenix appearing as a decorative element at the bottom of an 18th century portrait. (Photo credit: Sidney Edelstein Collection, National Library of Israel)
Phoenix appearing on the frontispiece of an 18th century Italian edition of the works of Galileo. (Photo credit: National Library of Israel collection)Phoenix appearing on the frontispiece of an 18th century Italian edition of the works of Galileo. (Photo credit: National Library of Israel collection)

Moreover, the symbol was probably not seen as foreign or alien, as the phoenix appears in ancient Jewish sources, as well.
A 16th century Italian printed edition of the Kabbalistic work The Zohar, which includes mention of the phoenix. (Photo credit: National Library of Israel)A 16th century Italian printed edition of the Kabbalistic work The Zohar, which includes mention of the phoenix. (Photo credit: National Library of Israel)
This cannot be said about the pelican, however, which does not appear as a mythological bird in Jewish sources. Though it has clearly been used as a symbol of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam for a few centuries – as evidenced by its appearance on letters, books and documents – it is not known with certainty when, exactly, the community adopted the bleeding pelican as its symbol.
It has been suggested that this occurred after the three communities merged into one. If so, it becomes a visual allegory for the unification of the three communities, with the focus on the three young birds rather than on the adult pelican and its sacrifice: each of the young birds representing one of the Sephardi communities now unified and drinking from one source of tradition.
Woodcarving of a self-sacrificing pelican and its young at the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam, ca. 18th or 19th century. (Photo credit: Vladimir Levin/Center for Jewish Art Collection, via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)Woodcarving of a self-sacrificing pelican and its young at the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam, ca. 18th or 19th century. (Photo credit: Vladimir Levin/Center for Jewish Art Collection, via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)
This seems to present a logical explanation as to why this image, which is very unusual in Jewish art, became the symbol for the newly-forged community.
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