Image right: the Holy Spirit as fire, or silly string?
Megapolis, USA: Drs. Jeremy and Gloria Dunnings, Historians of Sacred Art at RBCU*, concur: doves are easier to draw than flames. While this could be the obvious conclusion of any 7th grade art class, there are deeper implications: The Holy Spirit has been portrayed as a dove, not because of theology, but because of "lazy art."
Gloria Dunnings explained: "There are three prominent biblical and early Church images for the Holy Spirit: wind, fire, and a dove. However, 87% of the churches in Europe raised between 350-700 AD depict the Holy Spirit, if at all, as a dove. While there was a meaning to that image as a messenger from on high, the dove image always looked flat compared to the towering depictions of God the Father and the dramatic depictions of the crucifixion and resurrection. At worst, you look at the paintings and think God the Father is set to feed the pigeons."
When wondering why the image perdured, the Dunnings launched upon an obvious but radical explanation: birds are easier to draw than fire and wind. "Of course, wind is not a truly visual image, and that is its strength. But when we did consider the depictions of fire in the other 13% of the early churches, it became clear: fire is really hard to draw well. Even if you are not going for photo-realism, the apostles receiving the Holy Spirit look like candles or like a public service announcement for 'Stop, Drop and Roll'. So we decided to cut this Gordian knot and call doves 'lazy art,' and the response in our field has been phenomenal."
The Dunnings claim many artists--who prefered not to be named--called and praised them for their candor, sharing frustrations such as "drawing fire is enough to make me want to go all iconoclastic," and "God really doesn't want me to work this hard. I'm going back to the squiggly-lined dove; it worked for Picasso." But the Dunnings also say that Wind and Fire, as the more evocative theological images, must rise to their rightful place in sacred art. "The dove has had his day, and its time to retire him for a few centuries," Jeremy Dunnings said. "No one is going to develop a close, personal, purifying, transformative relationship with a bird, for pity's sake."
Sr. Wendy was not available for comment.
*RBCU=Really Big Catholic University