A History of the Seal & Symbol of Emmanuel Church

In honor of Emmanuel Day, here is an essay from our archives by former parishioner Steven Sutor about the origins and meaning of our parish seal. (Revised March 14, 2011)


The seal of Emmanuel Church, Baltimore, came into being sometime after 1912, when then-rector the Rev. Dr. Hugh Birckhead asked architect Woldemar Ritter, who was working on the church, to design a seal for the congregation. Ritter seems to have designed both a seal and a beautiful rendering of the pelican-in-her-piety, which were used on a number of print materials and on the Emmanuel china pattern. It is unclear exactly when the current seal came into being, but it bears the Ritter look and feel.


Some Background

Woldemar Ritter, born in Riga (then Russia, now Latvia) was the son of the president of the University of Zurich; Ritter senior was a world-renowned engineer who married an American, the daughter of Ludwig Jacoby, a Methodist missionary who is credited with spreading American Methodism throughout Northern Europe. Woldemar’s American mother gave him an appreciation for the New World, and after his father’s death he emigrated to Massachusetts. His travels through the northernmost countries of Europe with his family gave him an appreciation for the varieties of architecture found there, an appreciation he brought with him to the United States and to Emmanuel Church.

Ritter was the on-site project architect for the Boston architectural firm of Cram, Goodhue & Ferguson for the chancel renovation of Emmanuel. Dr. Birckhead--who came to Emmanuel as the Dr. James Eccleston’s successor in 1912--recognized Ritter’s talent and hired him to continue renovations. Woldemar Ritter designed the buildings and appointments we see and know today as Emmanuel.

Emmanuel Seal.png

The Emmanuel Seal


The Shape

The earliest seals for both the great families and for religious orders reflected the identity of an individual and included the effigy, arms, or personal device of the person identified with the seal. However, in England, in 1307, the Statutum de apportis religiosorum was enacted that required every religious house to have and use a common seal representing the entire community, not an individual; it noted that if the seal was not affixed to a document the document was considered null and void.

Early seals were often in the vesica piscis shape, a shape derived by overlapping two circles at an exact point; that point is such that the mathematical ratio of the width to the height of the shape is the square root of three. One of the ratios of this value is the number 153, which in John 21:11 is the number of fish Jesus caused to be caught in a miraculous catch. There are other interpretations of the shape as well [including as the intersection of Heaven and Earth] , but it has been used as a Christian symbol from the earliest days, and is today frequently seen in the seals of religious, educational, and governmental institutions. Note the vesica piscis behind the carving of Jesus in our reredos. When you see, on the back of a car, the fish shape indicating Christianity, it derives from this; vesica piscis translates as “fish bladder.”


The Pelican

The symbol of the pelican in Christianity was in use as early as 200 CE, when it is mentioned in the Physiologus, an early Christian bestiary. There are  at least two accounts of the pelican-in-her-piety, as the design is called: in times when food was scarce the pelican would pluck her breast and feed her young with her own blood; in the second account the pelican would strike and kill her rambunctious young and then, in reconciliation, with her own blood, resurrect them over a period of three days. The Christian symbolism is clear: the pelican-in-her-piety represents Christ sacrificing himself on the cross and, in the Eucharist, feeding us with his blood, while the three-day period is consistent with the Biblical Resurrection of Christ. [The three chicks in Emmanuel's particular depiction also represent the three chapels the parish helped to found and support.]

Among many other institutions, the pelican is today used as the symbol for Corpus Christi College, Cambridge; Corpus Christi College, Oxford; the medical faculties at Charles University in Prague; and for the Irish Blood Transfusion Service formerly located at Pelican House in Dublin.

In the hymn Adore Te, St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the Savior, "Pelican of Mercy, cleanse me in Thy Precious Blood,” and Shakespeare used the symbol in Hamlet, Act IV:

“To his good friend thus wide, I’ll ope my arms

And, like the kind, life-rendering pelican

Repast them with my blood.”


The Acronym

The lettering, "IHS," on an unfurling banner at the top of the center of the vesica piscis is considered to be a variation of the Greek acroynm ΙΧΘΥΣ (Ichthys) from the 2nd century. Derived from the earlier Greek work ἰχθύς ("fish"),  the letters became an acronym and covert staement of faith in the early Christian movement standing for ησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ: "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior." In the 3rd century, it was contracted further and latinized as "IHS," which itself became the prevalent, often mistranslated symbol found throughout the world.


The Temporal Element

In the background of the drawing of the pelican is what is called the “bottony cross," the cross is from the Maryland flag and state seal. (The pelican, with feathers spread, sitting on her nest, echoes the vesica shape.) A bottony cross is a cross with arms of equal length and trefoil "buttons" on the end of each arm, often thought to represent the Trinity.

This cross comes from the heraldic banner of George Calvert, 1st Baron Baltimore, which is now the Maryland state flag; it is the only state flag in the United States based on English heraldry. Interestingly, it was adopted as the state flag in 1904, shortly before the designs for the Emmanuel seal. The red and white element in our state flag, the two bottony crosses counterchanged or countersigned (heraldic language for cater-corner), were the arms of the Crossland family, Baron Baltimore’s mother’s family--he could incorporate his mother’s family’s arms into his banner because she was an heiress to aristocratic titles in her own right.


The Border

The border of the vesica-piscis contains the official name of our church: Emmanuel Church Baltimore, written in a Gothic uncial majuscule (all capitals) type face. At the top and bottom of the border are two Maltese crosses, the 15th century symbol of the Knights Hospitaller--also known as the Knights of Malta--Christian warriors & caregivers. These crosses; with their eight points, two on each arm; were once thought to represent the eight lands of origin, the eight elements of the Beatitudes, or the eight points of courage for the Knights.



The seal of Emmanuel Church, incorporating all of these symbols, contains elements that are ancient yet familiar in design. At Emmanuel we see the pelican-in-her-piety in a number of places throughout our nave: in the green frontal when used on the altar; in the Peace Chapel triptych; and in the sounding board above the pulpit. The seal is both familiar and mysterious, much as we might express our faith to be. A seal that requires some thought to penetrate; not obvious, but innately expressive of generosity, love, and sacrifice. A fitting seal and symbol of Emmanuel Church, Baltimore.