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May 10, 2005

Piero della Francesca, "clip art" doves and the Holy Spirit

Posted by Roger Homan

Prof. Roger Homan laments how the representation of the Holy Spirit in religious imagery has descended from the sophistication of the allegorical dove of Piero della Francesca's fifteenth century Baptism of Christ to the crass literalness of twenty-first century "clip art".

Piero della Francesca (1420-92)
The Baptism of Christ, 1450s
National Gallery, London

And he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit like a Dove descending upon him; and there came a voice from heaven saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

So reports St. Mark in his account of the baptism of Jesus of Nazareth in the Jordan. Artists have taken him at his word. For example Piero della Francesca has a white dove hovering immediately over the monumental figure Christ, its wings a gentle tremor from which descends the Spirit in a series of shallow ripples like horizontal wisps of cloud. It is a solemn moment and the scene is attended by angels on either side.

Piero presents the inaugural moment of the sacrament of baptism. This work is for baptism what more numerous paintings of the Last Supper are for the Eucharist. And it was executed not for a gallery but for a sacramental setting: it was painted for the chapel of St John the Baptist in the church of an community of eremitic monks at Piero's native town.

Piero's contemporaries were wont to place in their paintings features that were either mentioned in the biblical narrative or had a symbolic meaning in the vocabulary of Gothic art. For example, in the foreground of van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage are a dog as the symbol of faithfulness and a pair of cast off sandals to show that the place whereon they stand is holy ground. Piero's dove, however, is not an aside: it is in a dynamic relationship with the baptism event. It is centred on a vertical axis on which stands the figure of Jesus and which is defined by his prayerful hands. In colour it belongs to the mystical light of the scene for which tempera is demonstrably the more suitable medium.

But birds migrate, mutate and multiply. The white dove starts to appear in other places. The eirenic dove lands on Christmas cards, displacing the Christchild. It turns up alone. It becomes a popular but ambivalent symbol attending a variety of sentiments and good causes, some of them Christian and others emanating from popular politics. The sign of the dove is current as a passport to people's hearts.

In visual representation there is a tendency to confuse simile with reality. The Spirit descended upon Christ at his baptism not as a dove but like a dove. Piero conveys this well by giving us not the recognizable features of a dove but the gentle movement of air and benign waves that sanctify the occasion.

Now it transpires that as Whitsun approaches the editors of churchy newsletters and service sheets go googling for doves. I enquired of a number of clergy to ask where they found their graphics:

I was advised, "Try Google, I typed in Christingle and got a wonderful choice".

"And for Pentecost?"

"I should type in dove. There's a whole gallery of them. Or you could try CPO or Kingsway".

Another offered me a CD called Religious Clip Art which provided a choice of six doves for Pentecost, each as literal as the harbinger of God's favour that returned to Noah. The metaphor so well captured by Piero has been rendered literal by clip art and relocated.

Thus the dove is hijacked for Pentecost when, according to the biblical narrative, the Spirit was evident not as a dove but as tongues of fire. So at Whitsun scores of clip art doves will be downloaded to settle on parish newsletters. One of the CD doves flies with some purpose from top left to bottom right, while another dive bombs against a background of flames. Yet another image shows a freak wave rearing up from the sea and a dove heading into it. The new technology eases the translation of the dove from the sacramental moment of Christ's baptism and the divine proclamation of Incarnation and lends itself to the vogue celebration of Pentecost.

The measure of mutation is evident when we check the dive-bombing dove of clip art against its biblical character. Hosea characterizes the dove by its trembling habit. In the gospels it symbolizes innocence, purity, harmlessness and faithfulness. Clearly these are not the properties that belong in the drama of Pentecost, nor that appeal to those who make the Pentecostal experience central to their faith. But such qualities were so brilliantly understood and expressed by Piero in a composition of utter harmony, stillness and sanctity. Piero understood the sense in which the Spirit's likeness to a dove was a matter of character and not of visual effect.

Piero's dove, so integral a part of the moment of Christ's baptism, will not serve the purpose. Adapting to its mission to proclaim world peace, the dove bears an olive branch in its bill.

It is not difficult to understand why the Dove of the Olive-branch has been so widely appropriated. The call for political peace is usually assured a receptive audience. In a secular world, Christians may turn to the gospel of peace as the most likely means of making their faith "relevant". The dove is reckoned to be a salient symbol. In proclamation as in artistry, the clip art dove is both simple and fashionable. Perceiving themselves to be in retreat from a world that wants neither Spirit nor sacrament, Christian leaders use the dove to reclaim lost territory with a gospel expressed by a single politically correct motif.

Roger Homan is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Brighton and author of The Art of the Sublime: Principles of Christian Art & Architecture, (Ashgate, 2006).

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