‘A Dove’ –
Not just any dove, of course, it is the Holy Spirit. And this is a remarkably rare sighting of it in the Nativity. I can’t, off the top of my head, think of another example, although apparently there are a few, particularly in paintings from Antwerp in the early 16th Century. It flies aloft, directly above the Christ Child, and has golden beams of light descending around it – these are a continuation of the glow of the star, which is just above the wooden beam which frames the top of this detail.
This leads to the suggestion that the star might, in some way, represent God the Father, given that God the Son is down on earth, and God the Holy Spirit flies in between. However, there is nothing in the bible, or in any text I am aware of, that suggests God was present in the star – so this would be a unique instance of this symbolism, and, consequently, we might assume that no one would have understood it in this way – although the light from heaven might have made it clear.
The dove does fit in remarkably well amid the panoply of wings belonging to just a few of the heavenly host, companions of the angels we saw the other day, and they in their turn fly comfortably among the ruins. I love the way in which the wing on the left echoes the curve of the bracket which supports the beam at the top of the detail, carved from a naturally curving branch, I assume. I’m also impressed by the way in which the artist has thought about the pegs which hold it in place – they are flush with the beam, unlike the equivalents on the right, which project, casting visible shadows.
The flight of the Holy Spirit looks almost heraldic, the wings lifted more or less symmetrically, its head turned to our left, and the legs projecting down in front of the fanned tail behind. It has the air of presiding over events at a suitable distance. It may well be practicing for a future Epiphany. Its first appearance as a dove occurs during the Baptism of Christ, which is recounted in all the three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. The accounts are similar in each, but I’m going to quote from Luke, as the relevant part is condensed into just one verse. Immediately after the Baptism Luke says that, ‘the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased’ (Luke 3:22). In one verse of the bible (it’s two in Matthew and Mark) the whole doctrine of the Holy Trinity is embodied. It may well be worthwhile pointing out that the Baptism of Christ also counts as an Epiphany – a moment of great revelation. For the Wise Men it was seeing the Boy Born to be King. At the Baptism, it was the public revelation that Jesus was the Son of God. Many years ago, both Epiphanies were celebrated on the same day.
This is a detail from the 10th Century Liber Sacramentorum Fulda, a ‘Book of Sacraments’, with the liturgies – and illustrations – of the feasts that should be celebrated on each day. The Adoration of the Magi is illustrated top left, and The Baptism of Christ stretches across the bottom (apologies, it is unsuitably cropped, but see below). Top right is The Wedding at Cana, Jesus’s first miracle, and so another Epiphany, which was also celebrated on 6 January. Gradually the church spread them out, so each could be the focus of a separate day. Cropped as it is, the descent of the Holy Spirit is clearly visible: the shared celebration of the Adoration of the Magi and the Baptism of Christ could, possibly, explain the presence of the Holy Spirit in this painting. Either that, or the patron was more than especially keen to get as much theology into the painting as possible.