Once in a while I like to write about something medieval that supposed to had been serious, but somehow came out a bit ridiculous. That kind of post was the one about strange food in the depictions of the Last Supper (available HERE) or the one about misrepresented image of Conception (available HERE). This time I decided to focus on the Holy Spirit.
The mystery of Holy Trinity is one of the most complicated theological issues, and it is certainly difficult to depict. Three coeternal consubstantial persons sum up into One God; because of that we may find peculiar images of a three-headed God, who seems to look like some kind of monster, or a multi-faced pagan deity.
The most popular representation simply contained God the Father (depicted either as an old man or as Christ), Son and Holy Spirit in a form of a white Dove. And here we may see that apparently not every artist was capable of painting a dove properly.
I must say that I think it is never good when the Holy Spirit flies head down. Dove or pigeon is not a dignified bird in the first place and it does not peak spectacularly, so depicting it head down turns out either comic or pathetic. One of the earliest example would be here the 6th-century Syriac miniature of Pentecost, from the Rabbula Gospels (I wrote about that manuscript earlier, post is available HERE).
Perhaps it would not be that bad if we did not see the legs and tail of the Holy Spirit; upper part of a bird, even in the head-down composition, looks a bit more dignified. The example of such may be a miniature from English psalter dating back to the first half of the 13th century (British Library, Arundel 157, fol. 12v). By the way, it is an interesting depiction where the Holy Spirit breaths red trickles on the Apostles – but for some reason, only on eleven, leaving one without his Gift. And also, Virgin Mary has been left out; this is some kind of misogynistic Pentecost, where a woman does not get to be blessed by the Holy Spirit.
In the same manuscript, on folio 93, there is an initial D filled with the depiction of Holy Trinity. In this case Holy Spirit hanging head down actually looks like a dead bird.
On a subject of the Holy Trinity it is worth mentioning that sometimes artists depicted Father and Son joined by the wings of Holy Spirit, touching their mouths. It is understandable, as Son is Father’s Word made flesh by the Holy Spirit, however the outcome of that composition may have been a bit ridiculous. Especially when the artist dared to make fun of it by juxtaposing such an image with grotesque creature in the margin below, riding a dragon and blowing into two trumpets, mirroring the composition of Holy Spirit’s spread wings. This comes from French breviary dating back to the mid-14th century (British Library, Egerton 3035, fol. 1).
Finally I would like to share my favourite example of Holy Spirit as an inspiration: it is in the initial B opening the first Psalm (Beatus Vir…) from St Albans Psalter (1st half of the 12th c., Dombibliothek in Hildesheim). Traditionally, the first Psalm was decorated with the depiction of King David, assumed author of Book of Psalms. We can see him composing, and the Holy Spirit provides divine inspiration. Yes, that is right: this is a dove, not a goose, and not a swan!
For the upcoming New Year I wish you (and myself) all the divine inspiration we can get!