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Different portrayals of the Holy Spirit as a dove

June 7, 2019

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A Dove and Holy Spirit. In religious art the Holy Spirit is most often depicted as a dove. The biblical basis for the dove symbolism is found in all four gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. Each evangelist describes the descent of the Holy Spirit as a dove coming down from heaven (Mt 3:16; Mk 1:10; Lk 3:22; Jn 1:32). The Holy Spirit that descended upon Jesus at his baptism and upon the apostles on the first Pentecost (Acts 2:4) is the same Holy Spirit that descends upon every believer at the time of their Baptism and Confirmation, as well as every time a person receives one of the other sacraments.

Holy Spirit DoveA Variety of Depictions. When the Holy Spirit is shown as a dove, it is depicted in a variety of ways. A common form is one dove alone. Sometimes the dove is shown with rays of light or flames emanating from its head or within its halo, and the number of rays or flames varies, typically three, seven, eleven, twelve, or thirteen, and the number is symbolic.

A Dove with Three Rays or Flames. Three signifies the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit is one of the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity, and it is the Spirit who unifies the three Persons of the triune Godhead, and also serves as the presence of the Father and his Son Jesus. Three also signifies the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (1 Cor 13:13), virtues that increase and flourish when a person submits to the direction and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

A Dove with Seven Rays or Flames. According to the Prophet Isaiah, there are six gifts of the Holy Spirit, wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength, knowledge and fear of the Lord (Is 11:2), and to round the number up to the biblically complete number of seven, piety was added to the list. There is another version of the seven gifts of the Spirit in the Book of Revelation: “power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing” (Rv 5:12).

A Dove with Nine Rays or Flames. The prevalent explanation for the symbolic value of the number nine is the fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Gal 5:22-23); while an alternative explanation is the less-often mentioned list: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, mighty deeds, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues (1 Cor 12:8-10).

A Dove with Eleven Rays or Flames. Eleven represents the twelve apostles without Judas Iscariot (Mt 27:3-10; Acts 1:13). Each of them received the gift of the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost (Acts 2:3).

A Dove with Twelve Rays or Flames. Twelve can be interpreted in two ways, either the eleven apostles with their new replacement, Matthias (Acts 1:26); or the eleven apostles with the Blessed Virgin Mary (Acts 1:14).

A Dove with Thirteen Rays or Flames. Thirteen represents the reconstituted Twelve, the Eleven plus Matthias (see Acts 1:26), as well as the Blessed Virgin Mary (see Acts 1:14). All thirteen miraculously received the gift of the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost.

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