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The Enduring Symbolism of Doves

From ancient icon to biblical mainstay

Dorothy Willette August 05, 2021 37 Comments 67530 views Share

In addition to its symbolism for the Holy Spirit, the dove was a popular Christian symbol before the cross rose to prominence in the fourth century. The dove continued to be used for various church implements throughout the Byzantine and medieval period, including the form of oil lamps and this 13th-century altar piece for holding the Eucharistic bread. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Few symbols have a tradition as long and as rich as the dove. A particular favorite in art and iconography, the dove often represents some aspect of the divine, and its use has been shared, adapted and reinterpreted across cultures and millennia to suit changing belief systems. From the ancient world to modern times, this simple bird developed layer upon layer of meaning and interpretive significance, making it a complex and powerful addition to religious texts and visual representations.

In the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean world, the dove became an iconic symbol of the mother goddess. Small clay shrines from the Iron Age Levant depict doves perched atop the doorways of these mini-temples. On one example from Cyprus, the entire exterior of the goddess’s shrine is covered with dovecotes. The doves represented feminine fertility and procreation, and came to be well-recognized symbols of the Canaanite goddess Asherah and her counterpart Astarte, as well as her Phoenician and later Punic embodiment, Tanit. First-century B.C. coins from Ashkelon bore a dove, which represented both the goddess Tyche-Astarte and the city mint. In Rome and throughout the Empire, goddesses such as Venus and Fortunata could be seen depicted in statues with a dove resting in their hand or on their head.

There is strong evidence in the Hebrew Bible, as well as the archaeological record, that many ancient Israelites believed the goddess Asherah was the consort of their god Yahweh. Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that the heirs of this Israelite religion incorporated the “feminine” symbol of the dove to represent the spirit of God (the word for “spirit,” ruach, is a feminine word in Hebrew). The Babylonian Talmud likens the hovering of God’s spirit in Genesis 1:2 to the hovering of a dove. Indeed, this same “hovering” language is used to describe God’s spirit in the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as the New Testament.

A dove and two bird-like female figures perch atop this clay house shrine from the Iron Age. The dove was widely recognized throughout the Ancient Near Eastern world as a symbol of the mother goddess Asherah and her counterparts Astarte and Tanit. Ardon Bar Hama

Dovecotes, or niches for doves, dot the exterior of this small clay house shrine from Cyprus, while the goddess beckons to devotees from within. Erich Lessing.


But that is not the only allusion to a dove in the Hebrew Bible. The best-known example comes from the flood story of Genesis 6—9. In Genesis 8:8—12, after the ark has landed on the mountains of Ararat, Noah sends out a dove three times to see how far the flood waters have receded. The first time it found nothing and returned to the ark. The second time it brought back an olive leaf, so Noah could see that God’s punishment was over and life had begun again on the earth. (The image of a dove holding an olive branch continues to be a symbol of peace to this day.) The third time, the dove did not return, and Noah knew that it was safe to leave the ark. A similar flood story is told in parallel passages in the ancient Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. There, too, the hero (Utnapishtim) sends out a dove, which returns to the ship unable to find a perch. In fact, from Ancient Near Eastern records to nautical practices as recent as the 19th century, sailors the world over used doves and other birds to help them find and navigate toward land. So, while Noah made use of an ancient sailor’s trick, the dove came to represent a sign from God.

A white dove represents the “spirit of God” that hovered over the face of the deep (Genesis 1:2) in this, the first of the Creation mosaics at the Cathedral of Santa Maria Nuovo in Monreale, Italy. Photo by the Casa Editrice Mistretta, Palermo, Italy

Dove imagery is also utilized in several of the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. The low, cooing sound of a dove served as mournful imagery to evoke the suffering of the people of Judah (see Isaiah 38:14, 59:11; Ezekiel 7:16 and others).

A dove returns to Noah’s ark with an olive branch in its beak, a sign that life had returned to the earth after the great flood. Sailors throughout history have used birds to guide them to dry land. Pictured is a detail of a woodcut from the Nuremberg Bible. Credit: Victoria & Albert Picture Library.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Babylonian narrative that has several parallels in the early chapters of Genesis, tells the story of Utnapishtim, who (much like Noah) survived a flood that destroyed the earth and sent out a dove to try and find dry land. The British Museum

But doves were more than just a soundtrack for a people who had fallen away from God; they were also an instrument of atonement. Several passages of the Torah (especially Leviticus) specify occasions that require the sacrifice of two doves (or young pigeons)—either as a guilt offering or to purify oneself after a period of ritual impurity (including the birth of a child). Several columbaria, or dovecotes, have been excavated in the City of David and the Jerusalem environs (by crawford). These towers were undoubtedly used to raise doves for sacrificial offerings, as well as for the meat and fertilizer they provided—a popular practice in the Hellenistic and Roman periods that continued into the modern period.

Columbaria, or dovecotes, have been discovered in archaeological excavations in Jerusalem and throughout the Holy Land. The scarce remains of the tower on the left show a few rows of niches still standing in the City of David, whereas the underground dovecotes such as the one on the right, from Luzit, have been remarkably well preserved. Doves and pigeons were raised for their meat, and their droppings were collected for fertilizer, but they also played an important role in Temple sacrifice. Boaz Zissu

The atoning quality of doves led to comparisons in the Talmud and the Targums with Isaac and Israel. According to these extra-Biblical sources, just as a dove stretches out its neck, so too did Isaac prepare to be sacrificed to God, and later Israel took on this stance to atone for the sins of other nations.

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Thus, by the time of Jesus, the dove was already rich with symbolism and many interpretations—as a representation of Israel, atoning sacrifice, suffering, a sign from God, fertility and the spirit of God. All these meanings and more were incorporated into the Christian use of dove iconography.

Doves appear in the New Testament at scenes associated with Jesus’ birth, baptism and just before his death. The Gospel of Luke says that Mary and Joseph sacrificed two doves at the Temple following the birth of Jesus, as was prescribed in the law mentioned above (Luke 2:24). Yet in the Gospel of John, Jesus angrily drives out all of the merchants from the Temple, including “those who sold doves” to worshipers there (John 2:16).

During Benjamin Mazar’s excavations at the southwest corner of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, he recovered a stone bowl that bore the inscription korban (“sacrifice”), as well as finely scratched drawings of two upside-down (dead) birds. The bowl was probably intended for devout Jews to bring their offering of two doves or pigeons to the Temple for sacrifice, as commanded in the Books of Leviticus and Numbers. Erich Lessing

The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove during his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist. Variations of this scene are told in all four of the Gospels and, as shown here in a 14th-century Byzantine mosaic from the Baptistery in the Church of San Marco in Venice, the dove became the quintessential symbol for the Holy Spirit, especially in representations of the Trinity. Alinari/Art Resource, NY

But perhaps the most familiar dove imagery from the New Testament is recounted in all four of the Gospels (though in varying forms) at the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. After Jesus came up out of the water, the [Holy] Spirit [of God] came from heaven and descended on him “like a dove” (see Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32). The baptism story built on the pre-existing symbol of the dove as God’s spirit (and its many other meanings) and firmly entrenched it as the preferred representation of the Holy Spirit—especially in later artistic depictions of the Trinity.

Learn about the use of pagan imagery in Christian art in “Borrowing from the Neighbors” in Bible History Daily.

In Renaissance art, a dove became a standard element in the formulaic Annunciation scene, representing the Holy Spirit about to merge with the Virgin Mary. Doves were also shown flying into the mouths of prophets in Christian art as a sign of God’s spirit and divine authority. Even contemporary pop artist Andy Warhol used a (much more commercial) image of a Dove to represent the Holy Spirit in his, The Last Supper (Dove).

“The Word” enters Mary via rays of light emanating from a dove (representing the Holy Spirit) in this detail from Fra Filippo Lippi’s Annunciation scene, now in the National Gallery in London. National Gallery, London

This strange juxtaposition of modern brand labels and a classic Last Supper scene in Andy Warhol’s The Last Supper (Dove) nonetheless has hidden religious meaning. The dove hovers over Jesus’ head, representing the Holy Spirit, while the GE logo represents God the Father by recalling their famous slogan, “We bring good things to light.” © 1996 The Andy Warhol Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society, NY

Another source associates a dove with the beginning of Jesus’ life. According to the second-century Protoevangelium of James, 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. In fairytales throughout the world, birds have often been used to signify the “chosen one,” the true king or even the divine.

Before the cross gained prominence in the fourth century, the second-century church father Clement of Alexandria urged early Christians to use the dove or a fish as a symbol to identify themselves and each other as followers of Jesus. Archaeologists have recovered oil lamps and Eucharistic vessels in the shape of doves from Christian churches throughout the Holy Land.

Since ancient times the dove was used to identify and represent the divine. It then helped countless peoples to envision and understand the many aspects of a God who could not be embodied by an idol or statue. It continues to be a favorite way to show the hand and presence of God in the world and remains one of our most enduring symbols.

Dorothy Resig Willette, formerly the managing editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, is now contributing editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Bible Animals: From Hyenas to Hippos. Lions and crocodiles and monkeys, oh my! There are about a hundred different types of animal species mentioned in the Bible.

The Animals Went in Two by Two, According to Babylonian Ark Tablet A recently translated Old Babylonian flood tablet describes how to build a circular ark.

Camel Domestication History Challenges Biblical Narrative Camels play a major role in the Biblical narrative of the patriarchs; the animals are mentioned over 20 times in Genesis alone. However, a recent publication by Tel Aviv University (TAU) archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen suggests that camels were not domesticated in Israel until the end of the 10th century B.C.E.

What Does the New Testament Say About Dogs? A survey of dogs’ portrayals in ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures shows that far from being perceived as “unclean,” dogs served as companions, guard dogs, sheep dogs, hunters, and—surprisingly—physicians.

No, No, Bad Dog: Dogs in the Hebrew Bible Dogs—or celeb in Hebrew—were not well loved in the Bible. Given the negative associations with dogs, it is surprising that one of the great Hebrew spies bears this name.

Cats in Ancient Egypt According to a study, cats were domesticated in Egypt 5,700 years ago—almost two millennia earlier than previously thought.

Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt Megan Sauter reviews “Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt” edited by Rozenn Bailleul-LeSuer.

Ancient Animal Mummies Found in Egypt An excavation of the Saqqara Necropolis by the Egyptian antiquities authority has yielded a large collection of artifacts: animal mummies, wood and bronze statues of Egyptian gods, and much more. The highlight was the discovery of five lion cub mummies.

This Bible History Daily article was originally published on October 1, 2013.

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