What Is the Descending Dove Symbol? – History and Meaning

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One of the most enduring symbols in Christianity, a descending dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit, as related in the story of Jesus’ baptism. The use of the dove symbol can be found in almost all major religions, and is one of the most recognizable, yet that of a descending dove is somewhat specific to Christianity.

Let’s take a look at some of the accounts in the Scriptures, along with its significance and symbolism.

History of the “Descending Dove” Symbol

The dove symbolizes concepts such as peace, optimism and hope. It has a gentle, non-threatening appearance and has been referenced since ancient times in various cultures. It’s one of the first two birds mentioned in the Bible and recurs several times over the course of the text.  Several accounts in the Bible used doves in a positive note, which made some Christians incorporate the symbolism into their faith. For example, the dove is a key figure in the story of Noah and the Great Flood, which contributed to the belief that the dove and olive branch symbolizes peace. In religious rituals, doves were used by the ancient Israelites for burnt offerings within the tabernacle and temples. In fact, the Mosaic Law specified the use of doves in certain sacrifices and purification rites.

The dove became a common symbolic theme across many religions, cultures, and time periods. Both the ancient and modern Babylonians took the dove as a religious symbol, and the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean regions also used it as an emblem for their deities. In China, the dove symbolizes long life, while in Japan it’s an emblem of peace and depicted with a sword.

However, the symbol of the descending dove is specifically Christian, referred to in the story of the baptism of Christ in the New Testament. Accordingly, Jesus went to the Jordan River to get baptized. It’s described that after he came up from the water, “he saw God’s spirit descending like a dove and coming upon him” (Matthew 3:16, 17). From that description comes the image of a descending dove, coming towards earth from heaven.

Meaning and Symbolism of the Descending Dove

Descending dove

The symbolism of “dove” has been used in many contexts including religious, social, and political contexts. In the Bible, here are some of the meanings of the “descending dove”:

  • A Representation of the Holy Spirit – When Jesus was baptized in the waters of the Jordan River, the holy spirit “in bodily shape like a dove” descended from the heavens and rested upon him. The symbolism convinced John the Baptist that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God.
  • God’s Love, Approval, and Blessing – After Jesus’s baptism, “there was a voice from the heavens that said: ‘This is my Son, the beloved, whom I have approved.’” By these words, God expressed his love and approval for Jesus. Thus, the image of a descending dove evokes this concept.

There are other accounts in the Bible that used the “dove” in positive, meaningful ways, which contributed to its significance in Christianity.

  • Innocence and Purity Jesus told his followers to prove themselves and be “innocent as doves”, reminding them to be dovelike, pure and true in word and deed.
  • A Symbol of Peace – When a dove released by Noah brought back an olive leaf, it showed that the floodwaters were receding. It brought some comfort, knowing a time of rest and peace was at hand.
  • Faithful Love – In the book of The Song of Solomon, the lovers referred each other as doves, since these birds are notable for their affection and devotion to their mates.

Descending Dove Symbol in Jewelry and Fashion

The descending dove symbol is often used as a motif in Christian jewelry. In jewelry, it is often designed as pendants, charms, lapel pins or earrings. Because it’s a recognizable Christian symbol, it’s typically worn by followers of the Christian faith.

The descending dove is also often worn by church leaders, who sometimes wear clergy shirts, robes, and stoles depicting a descending dove as a decorative motif or ornament.

In Brief

The descending dove is a recognizable symbol in Christianity. Today, the symbol represents the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, showing God’s love, approval, and blessing.