Buzzards and Pelicans

I grew up in a family that loves birds. We love going out and looking at wing profiles and listening to songs and figuring out what sort of birds that we’ve seen see. It can get a little competitive, in fact!

So when I saw this picture of the Agony of the Garden, I was immediately intrigued!

The Agony in the Garden, by Andrea Mantegna, c. 1458-60. National Gallery, London, United Kingdom. Via
The Agony in the Garden, by Andrea Mantegna, c. 1458-60. National Gallery, London, United Kingdom.

There’s a lot of beautiful things about this artwork. All throughout this painting, there is a fantastic juxtaposition of life and death, where the top half of the painting holds images reminding us that death is imminent, whereas the bottom half reminds us that, with God, there is life.

For instance! In the background, you can see a mob of people coming to arrest and kill Jesus, whereas at the bottom of the scene, Christ’s disciples, who will one day carry the Church and save lives, are sleeping.

Then there’s the symbolism in the Earth. While the upper part is rough and rocky, at the bottom, the soil is fertile and green plants spring out of it while rabbits rush and scamper about.

Even the divine seem to follow in this scheme. Up above, the angels hold out the instruments of torture, such as the pillar, which Christ will be scourged on, the canes, which will be used to mock Christ, and the cross that Christ will die on. And there below is Christ, alive and praying nonetheless.

But the symbolism that I particularly wondered about were the birds. Up above in the trees is a dark black bird, probably a buzzard of some type (my guess is that it’s a Cinereous Vulture!), eyeing Christ with beady yellow eyes. Vultures are symbolic of impending death, as they are scavengers that feast on carrion, and this one, with its eye fixed in Christ and its beak slightly open, is no exception.

But then there are the other birds. Directly below the buzzard at the bottom of the painting are two white birds. These birds, with their long bills, are pelicans.

Why pelicans?

Now, you must understand that, in olden days, pelicans were thought to feed their young with their own blood in times of famine. After all, while these pelicans were white, their beaks often had red streaks on them. Plus, the way that pelicans rested their long beaks on their chest helped that myth.

So, the pelican became a symbol for both Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and of the Eucharist. And these¬†two pelicans are there to remind us of the awesome sacrifice of Jesus, as well of the life that Christ gives to us in the miraculous moment of receiving the Eucharist.

And, in a way, it is so beautiful that both these birds, as well as the other are displayed. After all, the Agony of the Garden is such a pivotal scene… It is the scene in which Jesus firmly accepts death.

And, by doing so, He gives us eternal life.


Questions to Ponder:
  • What was the first thing you noticed in this painting?
  • What juxtaposition strikes you as the most powerful?
  • In this picture, death looms ominously near while life seems far away. In what ways do you experience this sort of feeling in your everyday life?


Dear Jesus,

Help us choose the cross so that we may be granted life eternal with You.


This artwork is featured in my new book, The Sorrowful Mysteries, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with religious art. Take a peek at it here!

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of four, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer.

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