The Holy Spirit as a dove in iconography

Fresco of the Throne of Preparation (Bucovina)

A previous post on the Throne of Preparation showed the widespread (in time and location) practice of depicting the Holy Spirit as a dove. The Holy Spirit did descend “as a dove” at the Baptism of Christ, and so naturally we can see a dove representing the Holy Spirit in icons of this event. Yet there is some opposition to the widespread practice of using the dove to symbolize the Holy Spirit in other images, such as on the Throne of Preparation and icons of Pentecost (e.g.: here).

It is true that icons properly deal with what has been divinely revealed, rather than human imagining of divine things in terms of symbols and signs. However, the use of the dove as an easily recognizable symbol of the Holy Spirit’s presence persists in Orthodox iconography, and is based on numerous sources outside of the baptism of Christ.

Saint Gregory of Nazianzus says of the Holy Spirit’s appearance as a dove at Christ’s baptism:

And the Spirit comes as a dove, for he honours the body being seen “corpreally”, since He is also God by divinization. And since long ago the dove has been accustomed to announcing the good news of the flood’s end.
- Oration on the Holy Lights, 381 A.D.

Here, St Gregory sees the dove sent out by Noah from the ark as a foreshadowing of the Holy Spirit’s descent as a dove at Christ’s baptism. This is unsurprising, as overwhelmingly the Holy Fathers, starting with the Apostle Peter, interpret the Flood as a prefiguration of Christian baptism: the righteous Noah and his family saved through water. St John of Damascus says more or less the same thing, and adds:

Olive oil is employed in baptism as a significant of our anointing, and as making us anointed, and as announcing to us through the Holy Spirit God’s pity: for it was the fruit of the olive that the dove brought to those who were saved from the flood. (Gen 8:11)
-An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Book IV)

Here, the physical, created, dove that Noah sent out is seen as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, carrying the anointing (olive branch). St Bede the Venerable writes:

The olive branch with green leaves is the grace of the Holy Spirit, rich in the words of life, the fullness of which rests on Christ… And by a most beautiful conjunction, the figure is in agreement with the fulfillment: a corporeal dove brought the olive branch to the Ark which was washed by the waters of the Flood; the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a corporeal dove upon the Lord when He was baptized in the waters of the Jordan.
-Homilies on the Gospels

St Cyril of Jerusalem says the same, associating Noah with a prefiguration of Christ: “the dove returned to [Noah]… thus, say they, the Holy Ghost also descended upon the true Noah [Christ].” St Cyril also teaches, when considering why the Holy spirit might appear specifically as a dove at Christ’s baptism, a more general symbolism between the Holy Spirit and the dove:

…perhaps He came down in the form of a dove, as some say, to exhibit a figure of that dove who is pure and innocent and un-defiled, and also helps the prayers for the children she has begotten, and for forgiveness of sins.
-Catechetical Lecture 17

So the dove is a symbol of purity and innocence (Matt 10:16), and thus apt for representing the Holy Spirit. Saint Ambrose of Milan, whilst also linking the Great Flood with baptism, further adds:

The dove is that in the form of which the Holy Spirit descended, as you have read in the New Testament, Who inspires in you peace of soul and tranquillity of mind.
-On the Mysteries

St Ambrose draws further parallels between the positive characteristics of the dove and the Holy Spirit, though like all the Holy Fathers stresses that the Holy Spirit was never incarnate as a dove in the same way the Word of God was incarnate as a man. The Holy spirit was manifest as a dove so that He would be visible to John the Baptist; He did not remain a corporeal dove.

The association of the Holy Spirit with the dove in Scripture goes further than this. On Genesis 1:2, describing “the Spirit of God…moving over the face of the waters,”, St Ephraim writes:

[The Holy Spirit] warmed the waters and made them fertile and capable of birth, like a bird when it sits with its outstretched wings on its eggs and by its warmth gives them warmth and produces fertility in them. This same Holy Spirit represented for us then an image of Holy Baptism, in which by His moving over the waters He gives birth to the children of God.

This same symbolism is put forth by Ephraim the Syrian and St Basil the Great, clearly using the “dove-like” symbolism to describe the Holy Spirit’s action during Creation. St John of Damascus again uses the symbolism of the dove to describe the Holy Spirit in a passage unrelated to Christ’s baptism:

[Reading of the Bible] sets our mind on the gold-gleaming, brilliant back of the divine dove [the Holy Spirit], whose bright pinions bear up to the only-begotten Son and Heir of the Husbandman of that spiritual Vineyard and bring us through Him to the Father of Lights.
-An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Book IV)

A century before this, on the other side of the world from St John, St. Adomnan of Iona writes of St Columba (whose name means dove):

So great a name cannot be given to the man of God but by divine providence. For it is shown by the Gospels that the Holy Spirit descended upon the only-begotten Son of the everlasting Father in the form of that little bird. For this reason, in the Scriptures the dove is generally taken allegorically to represent the Holy Spirit.
-Life of St Columba, second preface

It is therefore not surprising that the symbol of the dove persists in Orthodox iconography as shorthand for the Holy Spirit. From icons of the Throne of Preparation, to the Pentecost, to “New Testament” icons of the Trinity to icons of the Annunciation (e.g. this icon from St Catherine’s, Mt Sinai), we see the dove and think of the Holy Spirit “Who inspires in you peace of soul and tranquillity of mind.”

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4 Responses to The Holy Spirit as a dove in iconography

  1. iconreader says:

    The counter-argument to this is expressed by St Augustine:

    The dove and the fire, indeed, seem to me more like that flame which appeared to Moses in the bush, or that pillar which the people followed in the wilderness, or the thunders and lightnings which came when the Law was given in the mount. For the corporeal form of these things came into being for the very purpose, that it might signify something, and then pass away.
    (from On the Trinity)

    However there is not a great deal of *explicit* agreement with this position in the Holy Fathers. Most pass over in silence, and the use of the dove to represent the Holy Spirit is incredibly widespread in Orthodoxy. St Ambrose’s warning that we do not see the Holy Spirit as “normally” taking on the form of a dove needs to be remembered though. The Holy Spirit is invisibly “everywhere present and filling all things” according to the prayer. The dove only acts as a way to literally inspire (in-Spirit) us in prayer.

  2. geloruma says:

    Thank you so much for sharing with “us” the symbolism in Icons. It is so refreshing to have sacred art explored and explained; so much secular art is reduced to the symbolism of basic human urges, and leaves one cold. I feel enriched and blessed to have discovered your blog.
    When God the Holy Spirit descended like a dove upon John, he had to come from a higher place; it reminds us that we have to ascend to God – and for that we need his spirit (wings).

  3. Pingback: May…the month of The Holy Dove! | Purplerays

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