Flight Of Fancy: A Rare And Sacred Art Object

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:

Dove1

Dove2

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.

Four Feel-Good Features for Your Friday

It being an especially busy Friday for this scrivener, here are four short stories I wanted to highlight for you this Friday:

Sister With Voices(8)

Thanks to the dozens of you who read my review and entered for a chance to win a copy of Eventide by British choral group Voces8. And I extend my congratulations to Sister Anne Flanagan, aka @nunblogger on Twitter! Sister Anne is a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, and is normally a resident of Chicago, Illinois,but she is currently working in England.  The CD will be flying over to you soon, Sister, and thanks once again to Decca Classics for the opportunity to share this terrific recording with my readers.  [N.B. If you are too young to understand the pun in the title of this subsection, allow me to instruct you.]

Madrid in Washington

As a reminder, in case you missed my review yesterday of his excellent new book Why Be Catholic?, well-known author, speaker, and broadcaster Patrick Madrid will be here in the Nation’s Capital tomorrow.  He will be signing copies of his latest volume over at the book shop of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, located on the campus of Catholic University (Brookland/CUA Metro Station), at 12pm.  Come along and meet the man himself, pick up a copy of his book, and you might even run into me, trying unsuccessfully to be inconspicuous in the back of the room.

Felicidades Felipe

Speaking of Madrid, a hearty congratulations to His Majesty Felipe VI, who took the throne in Madrid yesterday as the new King of Spain.  He was a classmate of mine at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, back in the day.  Well, I say classmate, but truthfully he was in the grad program and I in the undergrad, so we didn’t actually have any classes together.  As you can see in the photo accompanying this post, King Felipe and his wife Queen Letizia have two beautiful daughters, the Infanta Leonor, now titled the Princess of Asturias and next in line to the throne, and her younger sister the Infanta Sofia.  It’s nice to see a fellow Hoya doing well.

Bread = Egg and Flower

Although technically Corpus Christi falls on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, most of my fellow Catholics will be celebrating the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ in their parishes this coming Sunday.  It’s one of those Holy Days known as a “Moveable Feast”, which can be shifted about on the calendar – unlike Christmas, which is always on December 25th.  In Catalonia, there are two fun traditions associated with this holiday, which I’ve written about previously.  One is the tradition of the dancing egg, in which an egg is balanced on the spray of a fountain and appears to “dance” on the water, and the other that of the floral carpet in towns like Sitges which, as it sounds, involves creating a complex arrangement of flowers or flower petals for the Eucharistic Procession after Mass.

Felipe Letizia Leonor Sofia

Holy Thursday: Eating in Silence

Over on the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage (FLPH) site today we have another terrific guest post in aid of the hermitage, this time from Matthew Leonard, author, speaker, and Executive Director of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Studies, on the sacredness of silence.  I hope you’ll take the time to drop by and read his really thoughtful post, on how it’s not just enough to be quiet or place ourselves in quiet surroundings to pray: we also have to quiet ourselves down on the inside, as well.  If you’re enjoying these guest posts from Catholic writers over on FLPH, please be sure to share them, and also please prayerfully consider a donation to help us establish a permanent Franciscan hermitage. We’re happy and grateful for any donations!

Tonight many of us will be going to church to commemorate Holy Thursday, celebrating the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.  For those who have never attended a Catholic Holy Thursday Mass, it is an evening full of symbolism, from ringing of bells to washing of feet, stripping bare of the altars to the procession with the Eucharist to the altar of repose, where it will remain until the Easter Vigil.  At my parish of St. Stephen’s, during the procession around the church the altar boy holding the censer is in the lead, but interestingly he walks BACKWARDS in front of the priest holding the ciborium containing the Blessed Sacrament, so that he is constantly censing the Eucharist.

One of the points Matt Leonard raises in his piece for FLPH is that “the sights and sounds we take in are food for the imagination.”  This is something the Church has always understood.  It’s why we have particular, traditional rituals occur on Holy Thursday which do not occur at other times of year.  It’s also why for centuries the Church commissioned beautiful art and beautiful buildings, to put us into a frame of  mind where we can focus more on heavenly things rather than earthly concerns.

However it’s also why when we take in the Food of God Himself, we do so quietly, rather than boisterously. When we receive Communion, we go back to our seats and remain in silence, rather than standing around chit-chatting like one would do at a normal meal.  We are sharing in a different kind of meal together, which though communal, simultaneously each of us is experiencing in a very personal, intimate way, differing from person to person in its impact.

At the conclusion of Holy Thursday Mass tonight, all will depart in silence. There will be no music, no bells, and indeed no Mass again until the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening, when the Church erupts in song and the ringing of bells to mark the Resurrection.  So for those of you able to make it to church this evening, consider how that exterior silence, as you receive Communion and as you leave to go home, is something you can keep with you over the Triduum, to allow God to speak to your quieted self in a way that perhaps is impossible for Him to do in your busy, everyday life.

Detail of "The Last Supper" by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1896) Private Collection

Detail of “The Last Supper” by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1896)
Private Collection