The dove as a symbol predates Christianity, standing in for the mother goddess in the Ancient Near East and representing God’s hovering spirit in the Babylonian Talmud. In second-century Christianity, both doves and fish identified followers of Christ. Archaeologists have dug up Eucharistic vessels and oil lamps shaped like doves. Since then, the dove has taken on several distinct meanings within the Christian tradition.
Ever since Matthew, Mark, Luke and John reported that after Jesus’ baptism the spirit flew down from heaven and descended on Jesus like a dove, that bird has come to represent the Holy Spirit. Artists further popularized this symbolism by letting the dove stand in for the Holy Spirit in their work. In addition to descending on Jesus, doves are shown flying towards Mary during the Annunciation, that is, when the angel Gabriel informed her she was about to bear Jesus. Christian artists have also portrayed doves flying into prophets’ mouths.
The dove makes a famous biblical appearance after the great flood. When a dove returned to the ark bearing an olive leaf, Noah knew the flood waters had receded. This foretold a new beginning. Over time, the dove carrying an olive branch came to stand for peace. Because of the dove’s gentle habits, it’s also associated with innocence, leading Jesus to advise his disciples to be “harmless as doves” when preaching his gospel.
Doves’ cleanliness and other good attributes also had a downside; they were offered as sacrifices. Under Mosaic law, that is, the rules that God passed on to Moses, only doves and turtle doves made acceptable sacrifices. People offered doves when they felt guilty or wanted to purify themselves after childbirth or other states of impurity. Luke’s gospel reports that Mary and Joseph sacrificed two doves following Jesus’ birth. Later, Jesus drove merchants--including dove sellers--out of the temple.
Other uses of doves include a white dove as the saved soul, doves in vines symbolizing faithful souls secure in Christ and pairs of doves as happy conjugal partners. Several organizations, including the Knights of the Grail, use the dove as an emblem. For Catholics, red doves show that Christ redeemed humans through his blood and speckled doves represent the 12 prophets.
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