Diverging a bit from Tuesday’s post about a sculpture of a giant stick of butter, today I wanted to share with you a favorite type of art object which also looks like something other than what it is, but whose meaning is far more important. While the sculpture of butter requires interpretation and serves no practical purpose however, in the case of a Eucharistic Dove, we come across something which has both immediate and deeper meanings to it. For not only is the Eucharistic Dove a beautiful and practical form of storage container, it also helps to re-emphasize Christian teaching for the viewer.
A Eucharistic Dove, or more properly, a “peristerium”, is a box which takes the shape of a dove, and is designed to hold the Blessed Sacrament. Derived from the Ancient Greek word “peristera”, i.e. a female dove or pigeon, the object in question was sometimes also called a “columba”, that word being the equivalent of “peristera” in Latin. In English, the term “Eucharistic Dove” seems to have stuck with most art historians, and so shall we in the course of this post.
The dove has long been a familiar Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit, one of the three persons who make up the Christian Trinity: God the Father, God the Son (aka Jesus for the uninitiated), and God the Holy Spirit. You’ll recall from the Gospels how, at the Baptism of Christ, the Holy Spirit appeared descending from Heaven in the form of a dove, see St. Luke 3:21-22. Throughout the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, the appearance of a dove always heralds God’s favor, making it an even more worthy shape for holding the Eucharist.
As mentioned earlier, the Eucharistic Dove box was designed to hold the already-consecrated communion bread known in English as a “host”. The box usually hung above or very close to the high altar of a church, typically from a canopy placed over the altar. Sometimes the object functioned as a case for a pyx, a type of small, pocket-sized box containing the Eucharist, which could be easily removed to bring communion to the sick and dying. Usually the Eucharistic Dove was made of precious metals such as silver, gold, or bronze, but there are examples in other materials, including carved wood and ivory. In many cases, these bird-shaped boxes were covered with enamel or precious stones to give greater glory to the even more precious object which they contained within them.
The earliest written mention of a Eucharistic Dove dates from a will of 471 AD, in which St. Perpetus, Bishop of the French city of Tours, bequeathed a silver one to a friend. Given how frequently they are referenced in surviving church documents from around that time however, it is believed that their use goes back much earlier. St. Basil the Great, for example, is said to have commissioned several of them in the 4th century AD, when he was a bishop in what is now modern-day Turkey. In Western Europe they seem to have been more popular in England, France, and Spain, while in places like Asia Minor, Greece, and the Holy Land, they were almost ubiquitous.
In the West, many of the best surviving examples of Eucharistic Doves were made in the French city of Limoges. Today, Limoges is perhaps best known as a center for fine porcelain manufacturing, but up until their destruction during the French Revolution, its workshops were famous for creating the finest ecclesiastical and luxury enamel work in Europe. Examples of Eucharistic Doves from Limoges are in many collections around the world, including here in America at The Met in New York, the MFA in Boston, and the Walters in Baltimore. Here I show you an example which is in the collection of the MNAC in Barcelona; you can see not only the beautiful detail work of the wings and feathers, but also the hidden compartment on the back of the dove where the pyx containing the Eucharist would have been placed:
As beautiful and interesting as these ancient objects are, if you’re not Catholic – or possibly even if you are – you’re going to have a hard time finding one of these bird-shaped boxes in your local church. That’s because they gradually fell out of favor in the Western Church during the later Middle Ages, and a greater emphasis was placed upon keeping the Blessed Sacrament secure in what we more commonly see in Western churches today, a heavy and locked tabernacle. As you might imagine, a relatively small box, hanging from a string or a chain, could be more easily stolen or, as happened at Lincoln Cathedral in 1140 during a Mass attended by King Stephen of England, the string carrying the box could break, causing the receptacle to fall and be damaged. And particularly after the coming of the Protestant Reformation, the Church wanted to keep the Eucharist safe from those who would seek to profane it.
While we hardly see Eucharistic Doves in the West these days outside of museums, and the likelihood of a revival in their use in the Latin Church is non-existent, they are without question one of the most beautiful and unique objects to have developed in the history of Christian art.