The meditation of the dove with all its layers of significance and signs was practiced to develop perspective. By contemplating the dove and its properties, a human can find the traces of God in His own creation, and the human can perceive beyond the visible qualities of life to the invisible and sublime. Interpreting creation through animals allows the human to interpret creation through himself, for the dove is a mirror to the human. Hugh of Fouilloy outlines the three kinds of doves in Scripture and how they each exemplify a unique method to cease from sin. To follow the dove of Noah, you much cease from sin. To follow the dove of David, you must do battle against sin. To follow the dove of Jesus Christ, you must seek salvation. The meditation of the dove will lead to instruction and then action for the human who practices contemplation.
The dove is a mirror to the human who searches for the invisible trace of God in nature and for instruction for devout life. The human can identify with the dove, can take on its characteristics in order to sincerely practice their love for God. The dove can also become a mirror for the Church and the community. “The silvered dove is the Church,” and its physical shape holds the source of spirituality.
This was the atmosphere of the medieval world. As Dutton writes, “…the early Middle Ages seemed awash with divine power.” Doves and other kinds of birds, beasts, and even the smallest insects were both manifestations of God’s creation and agents of His will. But animal metaphors were also used for courtly life, and instead of careful contemplation of nature, human would identify themselves and others through stock characteristics and behaviors of animals.
Dutton implies that Charlemagne’s own court was a mock menagerie in which his courtiers and companions carried animal nicknames and communicated in animal code. Charlemagne himself was referred to as the lion because of the animal’s role as king of beasts. This association was determined by the nature and characteristics of the animals in the same way Hugh determined the signs of the dove by its properties. However, when the animal mirror is applied to the superficial personality of an individual as opposed to trace of God left in a creature from its creation, does the metaphor hold its significance?
Charlemagne identified with the lion as a king, but he also knew himself to be the king of humans and beasts. He played his kingly role by collecting exotic animals in his forests to show the extent of his control over the natural world. Significantly, he collected a variety of birds of paradise such as peacocks, doves, and swans, and their presence in his menagerie were not ornamental. As a lion, as a king, Charlemagne needed to display his control over a harmonious and civilized paradise that housed birds and beasts. Using the characteristics of the animals, Charlemagne could metaphorically and literary mirror his superiority. But does the recognition of animal properties within the self translate to the same kind of immersive introspective Hugh of Fouilloy was trying to stimulate through his dove?
In some ways I am quick to say no to my own question. It seems silly that Charlemagne’s political strategy involving animal metaphors and peacocks could be made similar to the deeply spiritual meditation conducted by Hugh’s dove. Yet, as Dutton reminds his readers, the Middle Ages were deeply spiritual and deeply animal. In a longer format I would tease out Charlemagne’s identification with animals, especially the lion and the birds of paradise in his garden. Dutton wants to suggest that the king’s plan for his animals was also meant to associate him with Adam as he collected the creatures in Eden and gave them names. Perhaps this is the entrance to the comparison between the dove and the courtly menagerie.
What persists, though, is the emphasis on the qualities of the animal that will lead to the central, invisible qualities of its creation. Medieval humans, I will argue, were not insistent on the animal’s appearance or physical accuracy. Although Hugh does spend a lot of time discussing the dove’s colors and form, his descriptions are not accurate for a realistic bird found in wildlife, even if Hugh does claim to have seen a golden dove. I believe the medieval observer was most aware of an animal’s behavior as it compared to his own. In this way he could more easily construct a metaphorical comparison and determine its place in the divine plan. As Ohly details in his article, the purpose of the looking at the dove for Hugh and others was to transcend the visible qualities and to perceive its invisible characteristics: “It leads from the foundations of the sense structure to its vault, from the earthly to the heavenly. Its essence is not foreshortening, but extension to the sublime. It does not relativize by means of an earthly view but is directed to the absolute and makes what has been created transparent vis-à-vis the eternal.” According to this interpretation, the people of the medieval age care more about interpreting the invisible nature of the animal than analyzing its physical properties. While the properties of an animal are important to obtain perspective, the goal is to mirror the dove’s behavior as a vessel of God’s creation and support to Scripture.
Therefore, the strange depictions of animals in medieval artwork, even those animals that were available for direct observation, have one version of explanation. I argue that medieval artists were too busy trying to capture the introspective trace of God to feel the need to paint realistically or accurately. They were creating images of the animals according to their nature, not always according to how they looked in nature.