“I know every bird in the heights;
whatever moves in the wild is mine.” — Psalm 50:11
The rich imagery of birds is prevalent throughout the Bible: though birds are often deemed small and insignificant, Scripture tells us that they are still cared for by God as part of His creation. We also see powerful birds like eagles as pictures of strength, and owls representing desolation (Isaiah 34:11). In sacred art, the Holy Spirit is depicted as a dove, as He appears at the baptism of Jesus, while the finch is associated with Christ’s Passion, and the peacock with immortality.
In this post, we invite you to learn more about the symbolism of birds in sacred art and Scripture, and where you can find these motifs portrayed in the art of the Basilica.
The Creation Mosaic
“Then God said: Let the water teem with an abundance of living creatures, and on the earth let birds fly beneath the dome of the sky.”
— Genesis 1:20
Birds were created by God on the fifth day, so it is only fitting that they have their place in the stunning Creation Mosaic of the Great Upper Church. Artist Mary Reardon worked for three years on the piece from conception to completion, consulting biologists and wildlife experts to depict the days of Creation. Soaring above the creatures of the sea, we find various birds including a flamingo, crowned crane, hawk, pelican, and more.
Birds as Symbols
Birds are often featured in Marian art to communicate deep theological truths. In the exterior of the Basilica, the relief of Mary, the Immaculate Queen of the Universe, features two peacocks, which are symbols of the eternal life we receive through Christ.
The Our Lady of Grace of Montenero mosaic features a finch. The Christ Child grasps the cord around the bird, a picture of His guidance and provision. The finch is also associated with the Passion; a legend holds that a finch snatched a thorn from Jesus’ crown while he was carrying the cross, causing his feathers to be stained by His blood.
The north wall of the Ave Maria Chapel shows a pelican feeding her young with her own blood, symbolizing Jesus’ sacrifice; and a phoenix, whose burning to death and rising from the ashes represents the resurrection of Jesus.
The Holy Spirit as a Dove
“…Heaven was opened and the holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” — Luke 3:21-22
Perhaps the most powerful avian symbol is the dove representing the Holy Spirit, which can be found throughout the art of the Basilica. The striking Universal Call to Holiness relief features a dove as its centerpiece, symbolizing the Holy Spirit calling people from all walks of life. A similar picture is also seen in the Mother of Africa Chapel, where a relief shows the Holy Spirit guiding the faithful as they journey from slavery to emancipation. In the center of the Baldachin of the Great Upper Church, a bronze sculpture of a dove graces the inner mosaic. Seven doves perch on the bronze doors of the Great Upper Church Sacristy — representing the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. In the windows of the Trinity Dome, the Holy Spirit is depicted as a dove in beautiful stained glass.
Birds in Scripture
We can take inspiration from how the Bible uses birds as a picture of our relationship with God. Often the Bible describes how the Lord knows the actions of the sparrows, and how much more concern He has for us His children, such as in Luke 12:6-7:
“Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins? Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God. Even the hairs of your head have all been counted. Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.”
It also describes how He provides shelter for us, like a mother bird does for her chicks, in Psalm 91:4:
“He will shelter you with his pinions,
and under his wings you may take refuge;
his faithfulness is a protecting shield.”
Isaiah 40:31 promises us that if our hope rests in the Lord, we will find strength in Him:
“They that hope in the Lord will renew their strength,
they will soar on eagles’ wings;
They will run and not grow weary,
walk and not grow faint.”
View images of where birds are found in the art of the Basilica below: