In Christian antiquity the dove appears as a symbol and as a
As an Artistic Symbol
As a Christian symbol it is of very frequent occurrence in ancient
As a symbol of the Holy Spirit it appears especially in
representations of the baptism of Our Lord (Matt., iii, 16) and of
Pentecost. St. Gregory the Great (590-604) is generally shown with
a dove on his shoulder, symbolizing inspiration or rather Divine
guidance. A dove of gold was hung up in the baptistery at Reims
after the baptism of Clovis; in general the symbol occurs
frequently in connexion with early representations of baptism. In
ancient times a dove-like vessel was frequently suspended over the
baptismal font and in that case
As a symbol of martyrdom it indicated the action of the Holy
Spirit in bestowal of the fortitude necessary for the endurance of
As a symbol of the Church, the agent through which the Holy
Spirit works on earth. When two doves appear the symbolism may
represent, according to Macarius (Hagioglypta, 222), the Church of
the circumcision and that of the Gentiles.
On a sarcophagus or on other funeral monuments the dove signifies:
the peace of the departed soul, especially if, as is often the
case in ancient examples, it bears an olive branch in its beak;
the hope of the Resurrection.
In each case the symbolism is derived from the story of Noah and
the Flood. Such is the meaning of the dove (columbula, palumba
sine felle) in numerous epitaphs of the Roman catacombs.
Occasionally funeral lamps were made in the shape of a dove. Two
doves on a funeral monument sometimes signify the conjugal love
and affection of the parties buried there. The dove in flight is
the symbol of the Ascension of Christ or of the entry into glory
of the martyrs and saints (cf. Ps. cxxiii, 7: "Our soul is escaped
as a bird from the snare of the hunters, the snare is broken and
we are delivered." In like manner the caged dove signifies the
human soul yet imprisoned in the flesh and held captive during the
period of mortal life. In general, the dove as a Christian emblem
signifies the Holy Spirit either personally or in His works. It
signifies also the Christian soul, not the human soul as such, but
as indwelt by the Holy Spirit; especially, therefore, as freed
from the toils of the flesh and entered into rest and glory.
As a Eucharistic Vessel
The reservation of the Holy Eucharist for the use of the sick was,
certainly since early medieval times, effected in many parts of
Europe by means of a vessel in the form of a dove, suspended by
chains to the baldachino and thus hung above the altar. Mention
may be made here of the (two) doves occasionally represented in
the Roman catacombs as drinking from a Eucharistic chalice
(Schnyder, "Die Darstellungen des eucharist. Kelches auf altchr.
Grabinschriften", in "Stromation Archaeologicon", Rome, 1900, 97-
118). The idea of the Eucharistic vessel was probably taken from
the dove-like receptacle used at an early period in the
baptisteries and often suspended above the fonts. These vessels
were usually made of gold or silver. This was no doubt always the
case if the vessel was designed to be the immediate holder of the
Blessed Sacrament, since the principle that no base material ought
to be used for this purpose is early and general. But when, as
seems generally to have been the case in later times, the dove was
only the outer vessel enshrining the pyx which itself contained
the Blessed Sacrament, it came about that any material might be
used which was itself suitable and dignified. Mabillon (Iter
Ital., 217) tells us that he saw one at the monastery of Bobbio
made of gilded leather, and one is shown to this day in the church
of San Nazario at Milan which is enameled on the outside and
silver gilt within. The exact time at which such vessels first
came into use is disputed, but it was certainly at some early
date. Tertullian (C. Valentinian. cap. iii) speaks of the Church
as columbae domus, the house of the dove, and his words are
sometimes quoted as exhibiting the use of such vessels in the
third century. The reference, however, is clearly to the Holy
Spirit. In the life of St. Basil, attributed to St. Amphilochius,
is perhaps the earliest clear mention of the Eucharistic dove.
"Cum panem divisisset in tres partes . . . tertiam positam super
columbam auream, desuper sacrum altare suspendit" (When he had
divided the bread into three pieces . . . the third part placed in
a golden dove, he suspended, etc., Vita Bas., P. G., XXXIX). St.
Chrysostom's expression concerning the Holy Eucharist, convestitum
Spiritu Sancto, clothed with the Holy Spirit (Hom. xiii, ad pop.
Antioch.), is generally taken to allude to this practice of
reserving the Holy Eucharist in a dove, the emblem of the Holy
Spirit. The same idea is expressed by Sedulius (Epist. xii) in the
verses, "Sanctusque columbae Spiritus in specie Christum vestivit
honore" -- "And the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove has robed
Christ in honour".
The general, and certainly the earliest custom, both East and
West, was to suspend the dove from the ciborium or baldachino. At
a later period in some parts of the West, especially in Rome, a
custom grew up of placing a tower of precious material upon the
altar, and enclosing the dove with the Blessed Sacrament within
this tower. Thus, in the "Liber Pontificalis" which contains ample
records of the principal gifts made to the great basilicas in the
fourth and succeeding centuries, we never find that the dove was
presented without the tower as its complement. Thus in the life of
Pope Hilary it is said that he presented to the baptistery at the
Lateran turrem argenteam . . . et columbam auream. In the life of
St. Sylvester (ibid.) Constantine is said to have given to the
Vatican Basilica pateram . . . cum turre et columba. Innocent I
(ibid.) gave to another church turrem argenteam cum columba.
ARTHUR S. BARNES
Transcribed by Michael C. Tinkler
From the Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright © 1913 by the
Encyclopedia Press, Inc. Electronic version copyright © 1996 by
New Advent, Inc.
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