Holy Spirit, Iconography of
HOLY SPIRIT, ICONOGRAPHY OF
The third Person of the Holy trinity was represented in all periods of Christian art preeminently in the form of a snow-white dove. The use of the dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit was formally approved by a local council of Constantinople in 536. In scenes of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit appears as described in Acts, in the form of fiery tongues descending on the Apostles. The additional symbolization of the Holy Spirit as a dove in Pentecost scenes, although not attested in the Biblical narrative, is supported by the anonymous Liber de rebaptismate (Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne [Paris 1878–90] 3:1203). The Holy Spirit has been represented anthropomorphically in painting and sculpture of the Holy Trinity, but this mode of representation declined after the Middle Ages and was ultimately declared unacceptable in a decree by Benedict XIV (Oct. 1, 1745).
The Holy Spirit is represented principally in three scenes from the New Testament: the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin, the Baptism in the Jordan, and Pentecost. They occur then at the conception of Jesus Christ, at the beginning of His public life, and at His last manifestation in the cycle of the glorification, for it was He who promised that He would send the Holy Spirit.
Annunciation. In the Annunciation scene, the Virgin is present with the angel and the dove of the Holy Spirit. The dove is not found in all representations of the Annunciation, but it is present in the fully elaborated depictions. One may also find God the Father and an embryon or homunculus of Christ. The figure of the dove in its descent courses along golden rays of light proceeding from the mouth of God the Father on high. One may also mention at this point representations of Mary with the Holy Spirit present, which are not scenes of the Annunciation. In the "Virgin and Child with Angels, Prophets, and Symbols" by the early Netherlandish painter Provost (Hermitage, Leningrad), the dove of the Holy Spirit hovers over the Virgin with her crown in its claws.
Baptism of Christ. The three essential figures in representations of the Baptism of Christ are the Son, the Baptist, and the dove of the Holy Spirit, usually shown directly above the head of Christ. Sometimes at the top of the painting God the Father is also shown ruling over the scene that inaugurates the public life of Christ. According to Matthew, the Holy Spirit, at the moment of the Baptism, descended like a dove, but Luke avers that the Spirit descended indeed in the corporeal form of a dove. In the "Baptist" by Jan Joest (Church of St. Nicholas, Kalkar), the dove of the Holy Spirit is on a parallel with the head of St. John, with Christ in the center. Andrea Verrocchio (15th century) shows the dove issuing from the open hands of God, its beams forming a secondary radiance above the head of Christ and falling upon the lustral water in the scoop held above the head of Christ by St. John. Paintings of the Baptism of Christ, in their arrangement, frequently recall the vertical Trinities of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance with God the Father uppermost, then the dove of the Holy Spirit, and Christ below.
Pentecost. The dove of the Holy Spirit occurs in representations of Pentecost, although its appearance is not
mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts the Holy Spirit manifests itself to the disciples of Christ under the form of tongues of fire that descend upon their heads. The dove entered artistic representations of Pentecost on the authority of the early anonymous Liber de rebaptismate: "Et hominibus quidem Spiritus perseverat hodie invisibilis, … Sed in principio mysterii fidei et spiritalis Baptismatis hic idem Spiritus manifeste visus est et super discipulos insedisse quasi ignis: item, coelis apertis, descendisse super Dominum columbae similem" (Patrologia Latina, 3:1203).
In one of the earliest representations of the Pentecost (sixth century, Gospel Book of Rabbula), the Holy Spirit is represented by tongues of fire alone descending upon the heads of the Apostles and the Virgin in their midst. However, the standard mode of representing the Holy Spirit in this scene is double, by the tongues of fire and by the dove (1403, fresco by Taddeo di Bartolo; Municipal Palace, Perugia). The flames may be represented directly on the heads of the participants in the Pentecost scene, as in the Gospel Book of Rabbula, or hovering a short distance above their heads, as in a late medieval painting of the Ulm school (Saint Bavo), or with the fiery tongues darting down upon their heads, as in a Pentecost painting by Rappaert (Bruges Museum). In a painting of deep agitation and physical movement, Titian combines the dove, streaming beams of light, and tongues of flame in a manneristic composition of the Pentecost (1543; S. Maria della Salute, Venice). The severely classical treatment of the same subject by Bordone (c. 1550; Brera Gallery, Milan) conceals the body of the dove of the Holy Spirit behind the central portion of a great classical arch showing only the lower limits of the burst of radiance behind the line of the stone archway that frames the scene.
Attribute of Saints. The dove appears as a source of inspiration to certain saints. It is an attribute of all those inspired by the Holy Spirit, notably the Evangelists and the Doctors of the Church. In Michael Pacher's "The Four Latin Fathers" (c. 1483; Pinakothek, Munich) a dove appears over each of the Doctors: Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, and Gregory; Gregory bears his on the right shoulder. It is said in his Life by Paul the Deacon (ch. 28) that the dove of the Holy Spirit was seen repeatedly inspiring the author of the Pastoral Care and the Great Morals. Thus the dove appears in Carpaccio's "Meditation on the Passion" (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) perched on the sarcophagus throne on which Christ sits—meditated upon by St. Jerome and Job. (The Great Morals of St. Gregory was based on the Book of Job.) St. Basil is shown dictating under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (c. 1656, painting by Francisco de Herrera, Louvre).
See Also: trinity, holy, iconography of.
Bibliography: w. stengel, Das Taubensymbol des Heiligen Geistes (Strasbourg 1904). w. f. stadelman, Glories of the Holy Ghost (Techny, Ill. 1919), 100 illus. h. kÜches, Der Heilige Geist in der Kunst (Knechtsteden 1923). k. kÜnstle, Ikonographie der Christ-lichen Kunst, 2 v. (Freiburg 1926–28) 1:221–239. f. sÜhling, Die Taube als religiöses Symbol im christlichen Altertum (Freiburg 1930) 1–51. l. rÉau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien (Paris 1955–59) 2.1:11–29. v. h. elbern, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 1957–65) 5:113–114.
[l. p. siger]