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Images for the Spirit - M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker

Images for the Holy Spirit

by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker

For many the Holy Spirit is the most mysterious person of the Trinity. Jesus, who became human and after his resurrection is very present in heaven and earth, is closest to us. God the Father we inadvertently picture as an old wise man, who cares for us and is concerned with us as a loving father. But the Holy Spirit?

The Spirit is spiritual and bodiless – how could we ever form a picture of him in our minds? We may forget, however, that the notion of God as father is also just an image. The first person of the Trinity is just as spiritual and disembodied as the Holy Spirit. And we may perhaps also overlook that the Bible hands us concrete images for God’s Spirit as well.

As human beings we need images to make a celestial God understandable to us terrestrial creatures. By means of earthly images it can become more clear to us who and how God is. Images are not arbitrary. An image or symbol always incorporates elements of that to which it refers. God is like a father, like a rock, fortress or mother hen. Each image clarifies a certain aspect of God. In the same way the Scriptures present us with images for the Spirit: he is like a dove, like the wind, fire, water. These rich images may resound on levels far deeper than the surface of our soul and spirit. In this essay we will reflect on them as they appear in the Bible and hence also in art, so that they may start to come alive to us.

Creation (bird)

Already in the second verse of the Bible the Spirit makes its appearance: ‘Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.’ Like a bird God soars over the chaos, across a world without shape or form. Literally it says: the Spirit of God was brooding above the surface of the waters. The same verb is used in Deuteronomy 32:11 for an eagle who spreads his wings in protection. A beautiful image: the bird of God with wings open wide soaring above the earth in protection and blessing, quivering and hovering, brooding and creating life. In the same way the Spirit overshadowed and hovered over Mary at the beginning of the New Testament, making her pregnant, creating a little baby who was to be the Saviour of the world. According to Calvin the Holy Spirit is most of all characterized by his creative and re-creative work. He chases away darkness and death and creates new life. Not only long ago at the world’s beginning, not only at the start of the world’s redemption, but also now as he hovers over the surface of our hearts.

The Spirit Descends (dove or pigeon)

When we think of a bird in relation to the Holy Spirit, probably first of all the dove will spring to mind. The gospels tell us that when Christ was baptized in the river Jordan, the Spirit descended on him ‘like a dove’. Something ‘like a dove’ made the invisible Spirit visible to us human beings. This descending ‘dove’ also makes clear that the Spirit comes from above, that he came down from the celestial realm to alight on Jesus.

We tend to picture this dove as a white dove, as a paragon of purity, majesty and gracefulness. It is much more likely, however, that this bird was in fact a very ordinary pigeon, gray with a iridescent green and violet neck, the ancestor of our common domestic pigeon. If we consider this, our picture of the Spirit may be somewhat altered. It may also be enriched. The pigeon is not a rare bird. Pigeons are in fact present in everybody’s neighbourhood, all around us, living in the midst of the muck and messiness of human life. They live where we live. They are so prolific that we often stop to notice them. Yet at times our ears are opened to their gently cooing in the trees around our houses, where pigeon pairs huddle close together as prototypes of true love. They do actually mate for life, staying faithful to their beloved ones. They are also very productive, producing up to 12 batches of little ones each year. But not everyone is so endeared by these gentle creatures. Some consider them to be rats with wings as they pollute our parks and porches. Some may even want to shoot them, try to chase them away and extinguish them – just like we sometimes quench the Spirit. Like these tenacious birds, however, also the Spirit will keep on coming back to us.1)

The dove as an image for the Holy Spirit can be frequently encountered in art from Early Christian art onwards: first of all in portrayals of the Baptism of Christ, but hence also in depictions of the Annunciation, the Trinity and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The dove has also come to be a symbol of hope and peace, but this is based on the dove that came flying back to Noah with a twig in his bill as a sign of hope and new life in peace with God. The peace dove thus is not the same as the Spirit dove, although we are of course not far amiss when we associate peace, one of fruits of the Spirit, with the Spirit.

Image 1 (maker unknown) shows how a dove with fire and wind in his wake hovers over the darkness and descends into the black sinfulness of the world and the human heart.

Power of life (wind)

Jesus offers the wind as an image for the Spirit to us when, in his conversation with Nicodemus, he compares people who are born of the Spirit with the wind: you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes (John 3:7-8). The Spirit and the work of the Spirit always remain to a large extent mysterious and unpredictable to us. Yet it is not true that all that is done by the Spirit totally escapes our notice. The Hebrew word for spirit/Spirit simply means ‘wind’, ‘air’ or ‘breath’. Even though the wind and air are invisible to us, we can feel them and see or hear what they do or accomplish: our lungs filling themselves so that we can live, leaves moving on the tree, a boat racing through the water with the wind in its sails, the sails of the windmill going up and down to provide us with flower for our daily bread, the sound of music as the wind streams through the pipes of the organ. God’s invisible wind/air/breath acts visibly upon our world.

When we equate the Spirit with our breath, as the Israelites did, it is immediately clear that he is our primary force of life. He is in us and gives us life, just like our breath. The image of the wind points to God’s power. The Spirit can be like a storm blowing everything upside down, turning all on its head. The Spirit is like a wild wind. The Spirit of God is dynamic. He is an agent of movement. He blows through dead-end situations and opens up new paths of possibilities. He blows us free from places in which we are stuck and imprisoned. He helps us make little steps in new directions, move and come alive again, grow and blossom. This aspect of the Spirit is aptly portrayed in the Pentecost Window by Georg Meistermann in Marburg, Germany (image 2). The six vertical pillars with small vertical circles at their tops look like people, a fierce wind blowing through their inner beings.

Georg Meistermann: Pentecost Window, 1963, in the Elisabeth Church in Marburg, Germany. © Bernhard Dietrich, Elisabethkirche Marburg

Purification (fire)

The six pillars in the window also remind us of the disciples with tongues of fire on their heads at Pentecost. This brings us to the next image for the Spirit: fire. At Pentecost the tongues of fire first of all served to make the invisible visible. They made clear that the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament fire often points to the majesty of God. Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke ‘because the Lord had descended upon it in fire’ (Exodus 19:18). Fire fills us with awe, as its heat is unbearable, it can spread recklessly and cause enormous destruction. 

The flames on the heads of the disciples, however, may call to mind the fire that set ablaze the burning bush. In the past this burning thorn bush has often been understood as a symbol for Israel and the believer: God lights a fire in us, he purifies and sanctifies us, but does not consume us as he is a God full of grace. The Spirit burns away all that is wrong in us. He transforms us, he re-creates us. Where there was evil, he sets us ablaze with his warmth and love, making us into enthusiasts (literally filled with God), full of fervour and ardour. In accordance with this Georg Meistermann’s disciples with their heads on fire may remind us of candles. They are candle people, spreading God’s light and warmth as the Spirit dwells in them. A great image of such fired-filled people we also find in a watercolour by Roeli Willekes (image 3). 

Roeli Willekes: Invocabit

Growth (water)

Another image for the Spirit of God is water. Water is – just like fire – an image for the purifying work of the Spirit. The water of baptism symbolises the cleansing from all our sins. In baptism we are born again, endowed with new life.

John 4 tells us that God wants to give us living water that ‘will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ Eternal life – real life, that is, life restored. ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water,’ we read in John 7:38 – water in abundance, that is, moving, streaming, bubbling and overflowing, spraying upwards like a beneficent fountain. 

Water is also capable of making dry land come alive again, even the barren land within us. Water gives fertility and growth. ‘I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert’ (Isaiah 43:19). 

The Fruit of the Spirit

In light of these images for the Spirit – bird, dove, wind, fire, water – it seems clear that the Spirit’s presence in us will change us. He will purify us, make us move forward and give us new life. At least, if we open ourselves up to him and cooperate with him. This change, I have found in my own life and observed in that of others, is not an automatic thing. The Spirit is not a divine magician, chasing away all our wounded impulses and weaknesses in a blink of an eye, even though he can do great and miraculous things. We have to do our own very hard bit of work as well, ora et labora, pray and work.

It is a bit ironic that the Spirit, who is usually considered to be the most spiritual of the three persons of the Trinity, seems in fact to be the one who is most materially oriented. The Creator Spiritus was very active at creation. He made the dark void birth life. The first human mentioned in the Bible as being filled with the Spirit, was in fact a craftsman or artist. ‘The Lord spoke to Moses: See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft’ (Exodus 31:1-5). Creativity is the Spirit’s trade, assisting us to be creators as well, forming new and beautiful things out of matter.   

In the same way the Holy Spirit is forming us into beautiful things. The Recreator Spiritus is birthing new life in us. The image of the fruit of the Spirit makes clear that this does not remain hidden and invisible, but we can actually notice these fruits of love, patience and peace grow in ourselves and each other. And these fruits of the Spirit will in their turn produce visible fruits of acts of grace and love. The work of the Spirit is now. Christ died for us and raised again, opening the way to a new life in communion with God. But the Spirit helps us to move forward, to grow in love, to become as we were intended to be, to be as we will be.


1. For the unpacking of the image of the pigeon, I am indebted to Debbie Blue: Consider the Birds. A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible, Abingdon Press – Nashville, 2013.

Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker is Editor-in-Chief of ArtWay. She has a cum laude doctoraal degree in musicology from the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. For many years she worked as an editor, translator and writer. She edited the Complete Works of her father, art historian Hans Rookmaaker, and produced the magazine LEV for Dutch L’Abri. She has written extensively about popular music, liturgy, and the visual arts. She is married and has three grown-up children.