O for the wings of a Dove: why is this bird so significant in the Bible and our Faith?

To celebrate Pentecost this year, Fleur Dorrell looks at where and why the dove features in the Bible and other sources. What is it about this particular bird that has inspired such rich Christian imagery and theology?

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To celebrate Pentecost this year, we look at where and why the dove features in the Bible and other sources. What is it about this particular bird that has inspired such rich Christian imagery and theology?

Few symbols across many faiths are as enduring as the dove. In the history of art and iconography, the dove often represents an aspect of the divine and so its depiction has been adapted by many ancient cultures and belief systems. While it is a sacred bird of ancient Egypt, Greece and Phoenicia, in Greek mythology, the dove is the emblem of the goddess Athena. Doves are respected in Islam because they are believed to have assisted the final prophet of Islam Muhammad in distracting his enemies outside the cave of Thaw’r, in the great Hijra. Doves are associated with peace and pacifism in heraldry and secular society. These are just some of its attributes that provide us with a visual motif complex in meaning and rich in appropriation for Christianity.

Inscription of Bincentia, flanked by the Chi Rho symbol,
a basket (indicating good works), and dove with olive branch.

c. 2nd century AD.

Catacomb of St. Sebastiano, Rome.

Within the Hebrew Bible, as well as in archaeological finds, it is clear that many Israelites believed that the feminine symbol of the dove represented the spirit of God since the word for “spirit,” in Hebrew is ruach which is feminine in gender. The hovering of God’s spirit in Genesis 1:2 compared with later texts from the Talmud where God’s spirit was described as hovering over the waters like a dove hovering over her young. This idea of God’s spirit “hovering” appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as in the New Testament. In the Old Testament the dove is well-known as the symbol of reconciliation and peace after the Flood when a dove returned to Noah holding an olive leaf in Genesis:

Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. 10 He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; 11 and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12 Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him anymore. (Genesis 8:8-12).

The Return of the Dove to the Ark
by John Everett Millais.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Oil on canvas

This painting portrays two of Noah’s daughters-in-law who nurture the dove that has returned to the Ark bearing an olive branch.

The Return of the Dove to the Ark went on public display at the Royal Academy in April 1851. Millais was surprised to learn that some Catholics believed it to be an allegory for the return of the country to the ‘true faith’.

A similar flood story is found in the ancient Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh where the hero Utnapishtim, is instructed to send out a dove that returns to the ship unable to find a perch. In the history of sailing, using doves and other birds to help navigate the seas was very common so that although Noah uses a reliable nautical trick, this time the dove came to represent a sign from God.

As a result of this story, the dove with an olive branch came to mean peace, forgiveness and deliverance. The dove of Noah’s Ark brought back the olive branch of peace between God and man, and since it found no resting place outside of the Ark, the Christian likewise, finds no safety outside the Church according to St Augustine (Sermo 96, 7,9: PL 38) and the Catechism – ‘Thus the flood and Noah’s ark prefigured salvation by Baptism…’  (CCC.845; 1094) This idea complements Irenaeus’ theology of the dove symbolising Christ in which he calculated both the numerological value of the sum in Greek of the letters of the word ‘dove’ and the sum of the values of the letters Alpha and Omega that refer to Christ.

‘The name Christ the Son (υἱὸς Χρειστός) comprises twelve letters, but that which is unpronounceable in Christ contains thirty letters. And for this reason he declares that He is Alpha and Omega, that he may indicate the dove, inasmuch as that bird has this number [in its name].’  (Irenaeus: Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 15)

Doves are widely appreciated for their peacefulness and gentleness as they can soothe and restore wellbeing. The caged dove signifies the human soul still imprisoned in the flesh during our mortal life.  King David honours the bird in the midst of his suffering and troubles of old age as he cries out:

Oh that I had wings like a dove!
For then would I fly away, and be at rest.

(Psalm 55:6).

Mendelssohn adapted this particular psalm in his famous composition ‘Hear My Prayer: O for the Wings of a Dove’ which has been popular even since. The dove is also a symbol of love, constancy and conjugal fidelity. The Song of Songs uses these qualities in various verses to enhance the central couple’s wooing and passionate proclamations such as:

O my dove, in the clefts of the rock,
    in the covert of the cliff,
let me see your face,
    let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
    and your face is lovely.
(Song of Songs 2:14).

Another aspect of dove imagery portrayed in several of the books of the Major Prophets is  the cooing sound signifying collective mournfulness, evoking the suffering of the people of Judah and the desire for liberation:

We all growl like bears;
like doves we moan mournfully.
We wait for justice, but there is none;
for salvation, but it is far from us. (Isaiah 59:11).

If any survivors escape,
they shall be found on the mountains
like doves of the valleys,
all of them moaning over their iniquity. (Ezekiel 7:16).  

Yet doves were more than just a trope for lament over broken relationships with God; they were an instrument of atonement. In Hebrew tradition, the dove was clean according to Mosaic Law and sacrificed in rituals of expiation, especially by the poor. Leviticus and Numbers both specify occasions that require the sacrifice of two doves or young pigeons for the purposes of a guilt offering.  

If your offering to the LORD is a burnt offering of birds, you shall choose your offering from turtledoves or pigeons. (Leviticus 1:14).

On the eighth day he shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons and come before the LORD to the entrance of the tent of meeting and give them to the priest. (Leviticus 15:14); (Numbers 6:10).

The atoning quality of doves led to comparisons of ideas in the Talmud and the Targums of Isaac with Israel. According to these extra-Biblical sources, just as a dove extends its neck, Isaac stuck his neck out in faith as he prepared to be sacrificed to God; later Israel adopted this stance to atone for the sins of other nations. As well as their atoning properties, doves were used to purify oneself after a period of ritual impurity which included the birth of a child.

When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. He shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean. (Leviticus 12:6-8).

We can see how this important duty was continued in Luke’s gospel at the Presentation of the child Jesus, as is attested to by many stained glass doves illustrating this event.

Presentation of Christ with St Joseph holding a basket with two doves on the far left.
Canterbury Cathedral.

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

(Luke 2:22-24).

By the time of Jesus’ arrival, the people were so rooted in the rituals and meanings of the dove’s symbolism that these elements easily incorporated into the emerging Christian art and theology. So it is no surprise to see doves appear in the New Testament at scenes associated with Jesus’ birth and baptism, and more controversially in all four gospels, when Jesus drives out the moneylenders in the temple in a fit of anger:

He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:16).

The dove as a symbol of quiet innocence prompted Christ to advise his disciples to be aware of the evils of the world. When sending them out to teach his gospel, he warned them of future persecution:

16 “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves”. (Matthew 10:16).

The Baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci and workshop.
c. 1475
Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Above all, we know that the Holy Spirit appeared like
a dove at Jesus’ baptism recorded in all four gospels:
Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22 and John 1:32-34.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1: 9-11).

This doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit looked like a dove but that the Spirit showed itself as a dove might do when it descended from heaven. It is for this reason that the Holy Spirit is also represented as a dove when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary since it is impossible for artists to know how to paint the Spirit other than in material form; and this is always a challenge for how we interpret the Divine visually. Nevertheless, from the time of the early Church to the present day, the dove has been the symbol of the Holy Spirit, and from the 5th century, the dove was present in pictures of the Annunciation. A dove on Joseph’s staff depicts the husband of a pure virgin ascribed to the second century Proto-evangelium of James, since when the Temple priests were trying to choose a husband for Mary, a dove flew out of Joseph’s rod and landed on his head, marking him as the one selected by God.

The dove continued to gather more spiritual attributes making it a dynamic symbol used earlier than the cross in Christian tradition. Before the cross gained prominence in the fourth century, the early church father, Clement of Alexandria, urged Christians in the second century to use the dove or a fish as a means to identify themselves and each other as followers of Jesus. Later, the dove therefore, came to represent the whole church and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit as described in the story of Pentecost in Acts 2.1-13.

The Holy Spirit at Pentecost stained glass.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church,
Grove City, Ohio, USA.

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:2-4).

Pentecost window, St James the Greater Catholic Church, Concord, North Carolina, USA.

While the dove in mid-flight is the symbol of the Holy Spirit, it also indicates the Ascension of Christ and the entry into glory of various martyrs and saints. In the 3rd century the election of Fabian as Pope was regarded as divinely appointed by a dove alighting on his head, and after Clovis converted to Christianity in 496 and was baptised on Christmas Day in 508, a pure white dove was said to have brought a vial filled with the chrism oil. St. Gregory the Great (590-604) is often illustrated with a dove on his shoulder referring to Divine guidance. St. Dominic, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Teresa of Avila are all symbolised with the dove as receiving inspiration from the Holy Spirit. As a symbol of martyrdom it indicated the action of the Holy Spirit in giving fortitude necessary for enduring suffering.

The dove symbol was employed in the earliest Christian times in catacombs and in mosaics. From Constantine onwards it was occasionally represented with the nimbus to distinguish this now divine symbol from pagan versions that were already well established. Priscilla’s catacomb is one such example, as well as a sarcophagus in Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome (c. 270 AD) showing a baptism scene overlooked by a dove, representing the Holy Spirit.

Detail from the Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome. c. 2nd century.

This catacomb was used for Christian burials from the late 2nd century to the 4th century.

On a sarcophagus or on other funeral monuments, the dove denotes the peace of the departed soul, especially if it bears an olive branch in its beak and further alludes to the hope of the Resurrection. Occasionally funeral lamps were made in the shape of a dove. Two doves on a funeral monument signify the love and affection of the people buried there. Athena or Aphrodite as both bringer of death and peace sometimes bore the name of Irene, Dove of Peace and her catacombs and mausoleums were known as ‘dovecotes’. The soul returning to the Goddess after death was conceived as a dove and from this idea, Christians believed that the souls of saints became white doves that flew out of their mouths at the moment of death. In the Catholic ceremony of canonization, white doves are still released from cages at the crucial moment of the ritual to this day.   

In Christian art, a black dove alludes to widowhood. The dove of Christ means salvation and the dove of David indicates peace, whereas the dove with the olive branch also means good tidings. A dove painted in gold and silver plumage mean purity and innocence but a dove with a ring around its neck suggests the divine word encircled.

Annunciation window,
St James the Greater Catholic Church, Concord,
North Carolina, USA.

A dove with a lily is seen with Mary at her Annunciation whereas the dove with a halo or nimbus refers to the Holy Spirit itself.

Then there’s the symbols in the number of doves portrayed: seven doves means the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; twelve doves are the twelve apostles and two wings of a dove meant love of God and love of man combined in the active and meditative life.

A flock of doves expressed the idea of a group of faithful believers, and in the Middle Ages, ‘dove talismans’ ensured pilgrims hospitality wherever they travelled in search of God.

During the 11th century, a human figure with a book or scroll took the dove’s place in art when referring to divine inspiration, but in the 16th century, the older dove symbol was revived, and is once more universally recognized as symbolizing the Holy Spirit.

Happy Pentecost.

Fleur Dorrell.

All Bible quotes from NRSVA