Then, I recalled that Giovanni Bellini had depicted a Grey Heron in his St. Francis in the Desert, now in New York’s Frick Museum. John Fleming’s study of this famous painting provided the answer. Here is his explanation of Bellini’s pelican. “In ornithological terms, the “pelican” seems to be any large bird, especially any large water bird. In poetic terms, the pelican is almost any desert bird, so that the pelican and the passerus are treated as equivalents in monastic texts….”
Of course, Fleming was discussing Bellini’s "St. Francis" and not Giorgione’s "Tempest". Nevertheless, a solitary bird on a roof lamenting the massacre of the Holy Innocents symbolized by the storm is certainly appropriate in a depiction of the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” Even more if it is a large water bird associated with the desert and the Nile Delta.
Finally, there is the obvious connection with Franciscan spirituality. Below are some notes from Fleming’s study, From Bonaventure to Bellini, an Essay in Franciscan Exegesis.
Giovanni Bellini’s desert is the Tuscan mountain called La Verna, but we must be prepared to discover that its flora and fauna are those of the Levant. That is to say, while the artist’s command of animal anatomy and vegetable forms reveals a close empirical observation, his vision of animal ecology would seem to reflect the literary sources of the Scriptures, and his desert wildlife gives visual form to the poetic diction of the Psalms, Isaiah, and Job. P. 35.
[Desert hermits] “By their aspirations and deeds they join voice with the Psalmist: “I am become like to a pelican of the wilderness, I have watched, and I have become as a sparrow, all alone on the house top’” [Ps. 101: 7-8] p. 37.
[Desert birds] “ In the famous passage of Cassian’s history of the monastic life, that life’s highest form, eremitic anchoritism, is betokened not merely by a desert beast, but also by desert birds…. So masterful is Bellini’s technique that we can identify them with certainty as a grey heron and a bittern, as we would name them today. P. 40-41.
The iconological difficulty presented by the pelicanus solitudinis is…the offspring of the word’s lexical familiarity. Unlike the unfamiliar nycticorax, a rara avis indeed, a pelican is both well known and highly distinctive. …But a pelican is not a heron; so how can his grey heron be considered a pelicanus solitudinis? The simple answer is that pelicanus/ pelican are false cognates….
A cursory iconographic survey of the well-known emblem of the “Pious Pelican” in the Middle Ages and Renaissance will reveal an entire aviary, birds we would be disposed to call pelicans, egrets, herons, eagles, storks, and swans, not to mention many that we would be hard pressed to give a name to at all. In ornithological terms, the “pelican” seems to be any large bird, especially any large water bird. In poetic terms, the pelican is almost any desert bird, so that the pelican and the passerus are treated as equivalents in monastic texts…. (p. 42)
It is Augustine who underscored for us these associations of the pelican that are most poetically appropriate for Bellini. The pelican is a dweller of the Nile, a water bird and an Egyptian bird. Bellini gives us a wonderful rendition of a large and solitary water bird, an ancient symbol of the eremitic life…(p. 44)**
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** John Fleming, From Bonaventure to Bellini, an Essay in Franciscan Exegesis, Princeton, 1982.