Sunday, February 22, 2015

2/22/15 Report - New Authoritative Research On The Gold Pelican-in-Piety Of The 1715 Fleet.

Written by the TreasureGuide for the exclusive use of

I'm honored to be able to post today the most authoritative new research on one of the most magnificent artifacts found on a 1715 Fleet wreck.  Laura Strolia, author of the book Marigalera of the 1715 Fleet, sent me her newest research on the gold Pelican-in-Piety.   Mention is also made of the gold-filigree triptych reliquary pendant that was found at the same wreck site.


The Gold Pelican in Piety of the 1715 Fleet
Part IV – Conclusion
By Laura Strolia

Over the past several years, I have conducted an ongoing investigation of an artifact found at a shipwreck site on the Florida coast. The vessel originally carrying this item was part of a convoy of ships headed to Spain, but its voyage ended early when a devastating hurricane hit the Bahamas Channel in 1715.

This object of study, discovered by Bonnie Schubert in 2010, was a 22-karat gold statue formed as a pelican-in-piety. It measured only 5.5 inches in height, and the presence of eyelets suggested the piece once held chains in order for it to be suspended in mid-air. The body of the bird was created with an opened chamber and its legs were pinned down into an ornate base. A rose, the classical symbol of Jesus Christ, adorned the bottom and its attached three pointed leaves represented the Holy Trinity.

Previous research (click on Pelican-in-Piety – Part I, Part II, and Part III under “Sources” to read) revealed that the piece could not have been constructed to be a monstrance, reliquary, incense burner, or pyx because of the many ordinances set by the Church at the time. The size and structural design of the artifact were also major components in formulating this conclusion. Its purpose was to simply be a beautiful ornament hung in a chapel, used for adoration. There is more to expand upon, however, concerning its patron and when it would have been on special exhibition.

The pelican-in-piety symbol was associated to a story of folk-lore where the bird was said to have ruptured its own breast to revive its young with its own blood. This legend of sacrifice led to its representation of Jesus Christ on the Cross who laid down his life to save each and every one of us. 
During the Middle Ages the image of the pelican-in-piety, first recognized as the Passion of Christ, was given a more specialized meaning that concentrated on the Eucharist (Rubin, p. 311). Spiritual nourishment became the main concept when gazing at the bird, as Catholics have always believed Jesus continually feeds His people with His Body and Blood by means of the consecrated Host.

In the Madonna della Strada Chapel at Loyola University Chicago, there exists a striking and colorful painting of a pelican-in-piety. Across its body are the Latin words, “ECCE PANIS ANGELICUS.” This phrase in English means “Behold the Bread of Angels,” alluding to the Eucharist. By searching this expression further, one learns it is part of a hymn called “Sacris Solemniis.” The piece was written by St. Thomas Aquinas, the author of the complete liturgical work or Divine Office of Corpus Christi. More intriguing is that another hymn by Aquinas, “Adoro te devote,” makes reference to Christ as a pelican whose one drop of Blood can free the entire world of all its sin.

The Feast of Corpus Christi came about from St. Juliana of Liege who became a nun in 1206. Our Lord revealed to Juliana through reoccurring visions that there was an absence of a liturgical devotion for Christ’s presence in the Blessed Host. In 1264, Pope Urban IV proclaimed a new feast day, Corpus Christi, to be held annually on the Thursday after Holy Trinity Sunday. The celebration would wholly be dedicated to the miracle of bread and wine becoming the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

The feast was accepted in Spain by the late thirteenth century (Brooks, p. 55) and became one of the most popular festivals for every level of society. Events included high masses, theatrical performances, tournaments, banquets, fireworks, and of course, the famous General Procession where the consecrated Host was carried through the streets of the city. The parade was made up of clerics, municipal officials, military, and commoners who gathered with their fellow parishioners, or with members belonging to their trade, guild, or confraternity.

The term confraternity (cofradías) referred to religious groups or brotherhoods whose purpose was to do charitable acts. They also held chapter meetings, and maintained chapels on land of their own or in rented spaces of other churches. It was said that in the Golden Age of Spain, every member of the community belonged to at least one confraternity (Webster, p. 14). Many brotherhoods were originally established by trade groups. For instance, the Sevillian confraternity of Cristo de la Expiración was sponsored by the silversmith’s guild and the congregation of Santísimo Cristo de la Humildad y Paciencia was affiliated to the Basque merchants of Cádiz (see Webster, pp. 14-20, for more information on the identity and member formation of guilds, confraternities, and devotional brotherhoods).

During the Corpus Christi procession, participants stopped at temporary altars set up throughout the diverse neighborhoods. Special prayers were said in front of the Holy Eucharist before continuing on the set route that would eventually lead back to the Cathedral. The outdoor altars, built by guilds or confraternities, were carefully planned out for months and embellished with the finest pieces of artwork, particularly those of gold and silver. Effort was taken to decorate the altars with those ornaments directly related to the history and theme of the Blessed Sacrament (Lenaghan, p. 9). A symbolic piece of art like the pelican-in-piety artifact of the 1715 fleet would have been quite appropriate in such a setting (to better understand the theological concept of the Eucharist in artistic imagery, please read the extraordinary work of John F. Moffitt on Masaccio’s Trinity fresco and how it is a celebration of Corpus Christi, pp. 71-74). When the festival ended, the objects of devotion returned to a group’s chapel where they would be displayed all year long.

Corpus Christi became an event where people not only expressed their faith, but their competitive spirit as well. Groups of every nature and status, as well as entire parishes, hoped to outshine all others with lavish displays on streets and on sponsored parade floats. The goal to make such outstanding contributions in Corpus Christi required great resources and funding. One confraternity chose to pawn items belonging to its private chapel consisting of “various articles of silver, including bells and crosses, in order to pay the high costs . . .” (Webster, p. 140). Having great sums of money, though, gave groups an opportunity to contract professional artists in order to obtain unique and new creations that no one has ever seen before. What ended up in the inventory of brotherhoods must have been imaginable, as one quote exclaimed “the adornments commissioned by or donated the confraternities during the seventeenth century were precious objects suitable for the use of kings and queens” (Webster, p. 127).

I truly believe the pelican-in-piety artifact from the Florida coast belonged to a confraternity member who was going to donate it to his chapel in Spain. Additionally it would have been displayed in the Feast of Corpus Christi for multitudes of spectators. The hanging object, being of New World craftsmanship, would have presented its own story and secrets from an originating place so far across the ocean.

On the same wreck site and within close range of the discovered pelican-in-piety, another intriguing religious item came out of the water, this being a gold-filigree triptych reliquary pendant. Surprisingly, its center piece contained a monstrance design, thus also having a Eucharistic theme. It is likely that both the pelican-in-piety and the reliquary pendant were from the same shipment and held the same destiny upon reaching European soil. Undoubtedly, the two artifacts together would have contributed to a one of kind Corpus Christi altar.

Today the pelican-in-piety artifact of the 1715 fleet remains a valuable and unique piece of art and history, reflecting people’s beliefs and social networking of the time. The true
nature of its value, however, lies in its ability to bring us closer to our Savior, Jesus Christ.


Brooks, Lynn Matluck. The Dances of the Processions of Seville in Spain's Golden Age. Kassel: Ed. Reichenberger, 1988.

Flynn, Maureen. Sacred Charity: Confraternities and Social Welfare in Spain, 1400-1700. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1989.

Lenaghan, Patrick, and Ruth Matilda. Anderson. Images in Procession: Testimonies to Spanish Faith. New York: American Bible Society, 2000.

Moffitt, John F. Painterly Perspective and Piety: Religious Uses of the Vanishing Point, from the 15th to the 18th Century. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008.

Rubin, Miri. Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Strolia, Laura. Pelican-in-Piety – Part II:

Strolia, Laura. Pelican-in-Piety – Part III:

Webster, Susan Verdi. Art and Ritual in Golden-Age Spain: Sevillian Confraternities and the Processional Sculpture of Holy Week. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1998.


I'm fortunate to be able to post the most authoritative research on some of the most fantastic artifacts found on the Treasure Coast.  Thanks Laura!


The surf on the Treasure Coast is running around three of four feet.  It will be like that for about a week.

We have been having some nice big tides.   Too bad the surf hasn't been bigger.

Happy hunting,