Discover The Pelican Lectern at Durham Cathedral

In this blog post, Durham Cathedral Open Treasure Gallery Attendant Anne-Marie Ashman, invites you to discover the story behind of one of the most prominent and ornate sculptures in Durham Cathedral, that of the pelican lectern designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott.

As you walk up the main aisle of Durham Cathedral just before you approach the arch into the Quire or chancel, you will be met by a rather grand structure.  Standing at 8 ft tall and made out of polished metal, it is certainly hard to miss Durham Cathedral’s pelican lectern. This lectern is a giant Victorian desk for reading from the Bible or other holy texts, and is used for worship.

The grandeur of Durham Cathedral’s pelican lecturn

It is incredibly ornate, with its salient feature being that of the pelican, who can be seen supporting reading desk itself. Other details include delicate flower and foliage patterns to the mid section, and at the bottom, winged lions, which guard the corners of the base.  

Lions guarding the base of the pelican lectern

But, do you know who designed and made the lectern? And more importantly, why they chose the pelican design? 

The story begins in medieval times when the cathedral had a pelican lectern near the High Altar which was used for readings from the epistle and gospel books.  It is recorded in The Rites of Durham of the 1590s as ‘the goodliest letteron of brass that was in all the country’.  However, sadly the medieval lectern did not survive the Civil War, being allegedly sold by an English jailor c. 1650 when Scottish soldiers were held in the cathedral.

Despite this, the lectern was not forgotten.  Over two hundred years later, the famous Victorian architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), drew on the description in The Rites of Durham to design his own lectern c.1873 – the one that still stands in the cathedral’s crossing to this day. 

Sir George Gilbert Scott

Scott’s lectern is rather grander than its likely plain gilt predecessor.  It is made of bronze, partly electroplated with silver, and in 806 separate pieces!  It was produced by Francis Skidmore (1817-1896), a renowned metalworker from Coventry who worked with Gilbert Scott for much of his career.  It is highly decorated with an elaborate structure of unfurling leaf work and spiral patterns embellished with semi-precious stones.  The stones are amethysts and probably rock crystals – both no doubt chosen by Scott for their religious significance in medieval times.  Amethysts symbolised purity and healing and were often used for bishops’ rings, while rock crystals (which also symbolised purity) were used as the walls of medieval reliquary boxes – being cut into thin sheets and polished, the closest thing to glass.

Detail on the pelican lectern

Why a pelican?  Less popular than eagles, pelicans stood for ‘pelicans in their piety’ – referring to the belief that a pelican feeds its young with blood plucked from its own breast, and so is a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  

Scott’s lectern, part of his major plan to reorganise the cathedral quire fittings in the 1870s, was not popular with everyone.  The renowned architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner disapproved, calling the lectern:

‘laboriously ornate and highly dangerous to the reader’s shins’.

In the 21st Century, the pelican lectern remains at the heart of Cathedral worship – a marvellous example of Victorian Gothic Revival sculpture by one of the most famous architects of his day.

When the lockdown restrictions lift, and it is once again safe to visit Durham Cathedral, why not seek out this marvellous structure and perhaps spend a little time to take in its beauty, in light of your new found knowledge. But for now, #StayHome and #StaySafe and enjoy these digital highlights.

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