The mystery of the broken doves

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2014), Volume 22

It does not take long to notice that the dove of the Holy Spirit on the Black Abbey Trinity has been damaged. Was it broken by accident, or was it broken deliberately as an act of faith? Damage to, or complete loss of, doves of the Holy Spirit on English alabaster images of the Trinity is a widespread and mysterious phenomenon. Lollards, followers of the Oxford theologian John Wyclif (d. 1384), are now and then blamed. Lollards were, it is true, much offended by representations of the Trinity. And yet they cannot be responsible for so many missing or damaged alabaster doves, given that the great majority of the surviving English alabaster Trinities were probably never displayed in England but rather exported to the Continent, a place without Lollard iconoclasts. In Ireland, Cromwell’s Puritans may well have been eager to damage the Black Abbey’s Trinity—but would merely chipping the head off the tiny dove of the Holy Spirit have slaked their thirst for icon-breaking? It seems unlikely. Rather, the Black Abbey’s Trinity has been damaged with some care, even caution, as if by someone seeking to ‘correct’, in secret perhaps, something that struck them as a particular theological wrong.

There are, though, other explanations to consider. Accidental breakage is surely the cause of many a missing or damaged alabaster dove; alabaster is easily broken, and the dove of the Holy Spirit was a small and delicate shape. But could it be that some doves were lost through well-meaning but rough-handed veneration? In times past alabaster was believed to have medicinal powers when powdered and made into an ointment. For this reason people would sometimes chip small pieces from alabaster statues. Presumably the alabaster’s healing value would be enhanced by the holy setting of a church, and, presumably, if the alabaster depicted a religious theme, such as the Holy Spirit, the power would be all the greater. All we can say for sure is that, if sculptures could speak, the Black Abbey’s alabaster would have many stories to tell. It is one of history’s survivors.

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