Tuesday, August 4, 2015

One dove, three doves, seven doves; Part 1

At the most elementary, a Tree of Jesse needs only a tree or vine or bush or shrub and a figure of Jesse, the father of King David. Historically the Tree of Jesse is more complex. The Tree brings together visually the ancestry of Jesus, the prophets, and usually one or three or seven doves that represent either the Holy Spirit or the fruits of the spirit as written in Isaiah 11.2-3.

The single dove

A single dove recalls the Old Testament story of the Flood in which Noah sends out a dove that returns with a fresh olive leaf in its beak.  (Genesis 8:11)  The Holy Spirit is represented as a descending dove when John baptized Jesus in all four of the gospels.  (Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22, John 1:32).  

The apocryphal Pseudo-Matthew circulated in the Middle Ages in England.  There are three known manuscript translations of Pseudo-Matthew into Old English.  One Latin version is found among the lives of the saints in British Library Cotton Nero E i manuscript. The English abbot, Aelfric, who lived from about 955 to 1010, wrote many, many homilies in Old English.  In his homilies for the nativity of Mary, he was cautious because he considered the sources to be of dubious authenticity.  Even so, he considered the Feast of the Assumption of Mary to be the principle feast day of the saint, even if the sources were  of equally dubious authenticity.  In these homilies he clearly shows that the knew the infancy gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (also known as The Book About the Origin of the Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Savior.)

There are two different references to a dove in Pseudo-Matthew. The first comes in chapter 8 when the story of finding Mary’s guardian is told.  The rods of unmarried men were put in the Holy of Holies in the Temple overnight.  The rod from which a dove would come in the morning was to be Mary’s keeper. The next morning the high priest distributed the rods but there were no doves. So he went into the Temple, robed, and made a sacrifice to God. Then an angel pointed out that the priest had overlooked a short nondescript rod. Since Joseph was a humble old man, he had hung back. So the high priest called him in a loud voice. When Joseph took the rod, behold, a white dove flew from the end of the staff. The dove flew over the roofs of the houses and then toward heaven. Joseph was embarrassed to receive Mary since she was younger than his grandsons. So five other virgins went with Mary as companions.[1]

The second reference to a dove comes in chapter 12, when Joseph takes the now pregnant Mary back to the Temple. The high priest describes how Mary lived as a dove in the Temple and received her food from an angel. The high priest then tests Joseph and Mary for sin and unchasteness and finds no lack of chastity. Mary then tells the assemblage that she took a vow from childhood to remain forever a virgin. The people and the priest then believed her.

An older version of the story is told in the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of James [The Protevangelium of James], written about 150 to 200 CE.  The book, written in Greek, was not translated into Latin until 1552, though at a partial translation may have been in England by the 11th century or earlier.  The symbol of the dove is used on two occasions. The child Mary is described as living in the temple “as if she were a dove that dwelt there” or “she was fed like a dove.”   In the Infancy Gospel, Mary lived at the temple until she is twelve or thirteen or fourteen (depending on version) years of age.  Then there follows a tale about how an angel appeared to Zechariah and told him to assemble the widowers and collect from each of them a rod.  Zechariah went back into the temple and prayed.  He returned the rods to the men.  As Joseph took his rod, a dove flew out from the end and landed on Joseph’s head.   Joseph was chosen to become Mary’s guardian.

The dove whether carved or painted or frescoed or made of mosaic was used in early Christian art from about 100 CE onward.  A single dove above the head of Jesus in manuscript and stained glass window Jesse Trees is common.  The dove as messenger was a popular element in story telling especially in the Golden Legend or Legenda Aurea compiled by Jacobus de Voragine about 1260.   But that is beyond the scope of this blog, at least for now.

Enough for today even if the topic of three doves and seven doves has yet to be mentioned. 

Below are examples of the single dove above the head of Jesus:

1. See previous blog and Tree of Jesse from the Shaftesbury Psalter.
2. See Psalm 1 (Beatus vir) in the Huth Psalter. British Library Additional MS 38116 f.14v.  http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/illmanus/other/largeimage74443.html


Tree of Jesse, in The Winchester Psalter

Tree of Jesse from the Winchester or St. Swithun Psalter.  British Library. Cotton MS Nero C IV f.9r.  Made about 1150, probably at the Cathedral Priory of Winchester.  It may have been made for or on the direction of  Hugh of Blois, brother of King Stephen, and Bishop of Winchester.   The prophets flanking the Virgin Mary are not identified.  All the figures except Jesse, at the bottom, are grasping the vine.  This element will be seen again in the stained glass Tree of Jesse windows.


Jesse Tree, mid-12th century from De laudibus sanctae crucis
Arbre de Jessé Manuscrit 340 Bibliothèque municipale de Douai

Note the ladder design in this manuscript.  This ladder design can also be seen in  the French Speculum Virginum.  In this devotional literature, one illustration is of Spirit and Flesh climbing the ladder to Jesus Christ.  [More to come.]

[1] Chapter 8 and Chapter 12.  “The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.” ANF08: The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, The Clementina, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the FirstAges. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf08.vii.v.ix.html> This apocryphal work may have been written about 600 CE.  It was more widely known in the Middle Ages than the Protevangelium of James or Infancy gospel of James that was probably written about 150- 200 CE.
Ronald R. Hock. The Infancy Gospels of James and Thomas: With Introduction, Notes, and Original Text. (1996) Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press. .  There are a number of translations also online.
Mary Clayton.  The Apocryphal Gospels of Mary in Anglo-Saxon England (2004) Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, pp. 116, 151-210.


  1. Re the Protevangelium of James, some translation to Latin existed in the 4th century. Latin manuscripts of the Prot. date from the 8th century. As I recall, the scholarly consensus at the moment tends to the view there were two or even more independent translations to Latin. http://www.piggin.net/stemmahist/biblicaljoachim.htm

    1. Thank you. Most of your information is new to me. I have only really explored the "alternative" genealogies of Jesus as far as the stories about Anne and her three husbands. The Cathedral of St. Stephen in Bourges has eight panels in the lower part of the St. John the Evangelist window (Cowen # 22). In these eight panels John, James the Greater and James the Less, Zebedee, Anne, Mary Salome, Cleopas, Alpheus, and Mary, Joachim, Jesus, and Mary are all shown. It is interesting to note that Gneuss and Lapidge did not find any evidence of the Protoevangelium of James or Pseudo-Matthew in England up to year 1100. All very interesting.