Friday, 28 August 2020

The pious pelican and devoted mother of Highgate; Baroness Elizabeth de Munck (1767-1841) Highgate Cemetery

When the savage pelican resolves to give his breast to devour his young, having as witness only he who knew how to create such a love, in order to make men ashamed, although the sacrifice is great, this act is understood.

Comte de Lautréamont - Les Chants de Maldoror

As it is probably the only exemplar in a Victorian cemetery, guides at Highgate always point out the relatively modest memorial to Elizabeth de Munck who was interred here in 1841 just a couple of years after the cemetery opened. The motif of the pelican feeding her young with her own flesh or blood was once a common heraldic device and is a symbol of both maternal and christian devotion. The Physiologus, an early didactic Christian text written in Greek in Alexandria and hugely popular and frequently translated from the 5th century onwards, claims that the Pelican loved her young but when they flapped their wings in the nest and hit her in the face, she lost patience and pecked them to death. Smitten with remorse she cried over her dead chicks and struck at her breast with her bill until she bled. Immediately the blood touched her dead chicks they revived and came back to life. “In the same way, our Lord Jesus Christ's breast was pierced with a spear by the Jews,” says the author, “and blood and water flowed out, and revived the Universe, namely the dead. That is why the prophet said: ‘I resembled a desert pelican.’" 

In Pseudodoxia Epidemica (Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths, also known simply as Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Vulgar Errors) the ever sceptical Thomas Browne noted that in “first in every place we meet with the picture of the Pelecan, opening her breast with her bill, and feeding her young ones with the blood distilling from her. Thus is it set forth not onely in common Signs, but in the Crest and Scutcheon of many Noble families; hath been asserted by many holy Writers, and was an Hieroglyphick of piety and pitty among the Ægyptians; on which consideration, they spared them at their tables.”  In the version of the story he had heard it was serpents which had killed the pelican’s brood, making a slightly more credible version of the tale. Nevertheless he is not convinced; “concerning the picture, if naturally examined, and not Hieroglyphically conceived, it containeth many improprieties,” he says including it commonly being pictured as green or yellow when in fact the bird is white, being described as the size of a hen when it is as big as a swan, and being generally painted with a short bill “whereas that of the Pelecan attaineth sometimes the length of two spans.” He also points out that the feet are shown as like those of ‘fissipedes’, birds which have claws or feet divided when it fact it is web footed and, most remarkably of all, almost all images miss out the part “more remarkable then any other, that is, the chowle or crop adhering unto the lower side of the bill, and so descending by the throat; a bag or sachel very observable.” On the subject of the pelican’s crop Browne’s scepticism suddenly deserts him, it is, he claims “of a capacity almost beyond credit; which notwithstanding, this animal could not want; for therein it receiveth Oysters, Cochels, Scollops, and other testaceous animals; which being not able to break, it retains them until they open, and vomitting them up, takes out the meat contained. This is that part preserved for a rarity, and wherein (as Sanctius delivers) in one dissected, a Negro child was found.”

In Paulo Rego’s extraordinary image, a full sized pelican (very much larger than a hen), very naturalistically portrayed as white, with a bill of at least two spans, web footed and complete with capacious crop (absolutely nothing for Sir Thomas to complain of here) is seen perched on Jane Eyre’s lap who is leaning back with eyes closed and mouth wide open apparently about to receive nourishment from the pelican’s beak. This bizarre and powerful image is called ‘Loving Bewick’ and refers to a sentence in Jane Eyre when Jane says ‘with Bewick on my knee, I was then happy; happy at least in my way .’ Bewick is not a pelican but a book Bewick’s History of British Birds of which the young Jane loves the pages “which treat of the haunts of sea-fowl; of “the solitary rocks and promontories” by them only inhabited; of the coast of Norway, studded with isles from its southern extremity, the Lindeness, or Naze, to the North Cape…” and the illustrations which include a “quite solitary churchyard, with its inscribed headstone; its gate, its two trees, its low horizon, girdled by a broken wall, and its newly-risen crescent, attesting the hour of eventide.” In her essay on Rego In an Artist’s Dream World Marina Warner observes that “in the print of Jane billing the pelican’s beak, Rego introduces a note of true sustenance: it is through the mind-food of books and pictures that Jane survives.”

Maria Caterina Rosalbina Caradori-Allan probably chose the pelican symbol for her mother's grave

We know little about Elizabeth de Munck. The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1841 tells us that “lately in Upper Norton street aged 74 Elizabeth Baroness de Munck” has died, “her body was buried at the Highgate Cemetery on the 29th May.” A few days later The Atlas of Saturday 12 June told its readers that “In consequence of the death of her mother, the Baroness de Munck, Madame Caradori Allan has been compelled to relinquish her engagements at several of the principal concerts of the season, including those of Lablache, Putter, Puzzi, &c.” Baroness de Munck’s daughter was Maria Caterina Rosalbina Caradori-Allan, a celebrated and successful operatic soprano who had been born in 1800 at the Casa Palantina in Milan. Her father was a member of the Alsatian lesser nobility, the Baron de Munck and “her mother whose maiden name was Caradori, was a native of St. Petersburg. Owing to her father's death she was forced to adopt music as a profession, though the only training she received was from her mother.” (DNB 1885-1900). If she really died at the age of 74 Elizabeth had Maria at the relatively late age of 33. Maria seems to have been her only child. After touring in France and Germany the opera singer and her mother were called to London for an engagement at the Kings Theatre in 1822 where Maria took the role of Cherubino in the Nozze di Figaro and earned £300 for the season. Mother and daughter settled in London, Maria marrying a Mr Allan who happened to be the secretary of the Kings Theatre and accepting a salary of £500 a year to sing. It must have been Maria who chose the new cemetery at Highgate as her mother's final resting place and who commissioned the handsome memorial with its pelican motif to acknowledge her mother's devotion to her life and career. Although she occasionally took engagements abroad Maria remained in England for the rest of her life, dying at Surbiton in 1865. Maria did not join her mother in Highgate – she was buried in Kensal Green, probably with her husband.   


  1. Her husband was indeed buried at Kensal Green as I mention in an article I wrote earlier this year in the Highgate Cemetery newsletter which contains additional information about this grave

    1. Hi Stuart thanks for the link to your very interesting article (I wish I'd seen it before I wrote this!) I had no idea that the memorial had only recently been identified as belonging to Elizabeth de Munck.