Symbols of the Spirit

Cathal Barry takes a look at the some of the symbols of the Holy Spirit in the Bible


The symbolism of water signifies the Holy Spirit’s action in Baptism, the Church teaches, since after the invocation of the Holy Spirit it becomes the efficacious sacramental sign of new birth. As “by one Spirit we were all baptised,” so we are also “made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). Thus, the Catechism states, “the Spirit is also personally the living water welling up from Christ crucified as its source and welling up in us to eternal life”.


The symbolism of anointing with oil signifies the Holy Spirit, according to the Church, to the point of becoming a synonym for the Holy Spirit. In Christian initiation, anointing is the sacramental sign of Confirmation. Its full force can be grasped only in relation to the primary anointing accomplished by the Holy Spirit, that of Jesus.


While water signifies birth and the fruitfulness of life given in the Holy Spirit, the Church teaches that fire symbolises the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit’s actions. The prayer of the prophet Elijah, who “arose like fire” and whose “word burned like a torch,” brought down fire from heaven on the sacrifice on Mount Carmel. This event was a “figure” of the fire of the Holy Spirit, who transforms what he touches. John the Baptist, who goes “before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah”, proclaims Christ as the one who “will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Lk 1:17 – 3:16). The spiritual tradition has retained this symbolism of fire as one of the most expressive images of the Holy Spirit’s actions (Acts 2:3-4).

Cloud and light

These two images occur together in the manifestations of the Holy Spirit. In the theophanies of the Old Testament, the cloud, now obscure, now luminous, reveals the living and saving God, while veiling the transcendence of his glory – with Moses on Mount Sinai, at the tent of meeting, during the wandering in the desert and with Solomon at the dedication of the Temple. The Church teaches that, in the Holy Spirit, Christ fulfils these figures. Finally, the cloud took Jesus out of the sight of the disciples on the day of his ascension and will reveal him as Son of man in glory on the day of his final coming (Lk 21:27).

The hand

Jesus heals the sick and blesses children by laying hands on them. In his name, the apostles will do the same, the Bible states. Even more pointedly, it is by the Apostles’ imposition of hands thatthe Holy Spirit is given. The Letter to the Hebrews lists the imposition of hands among the “fundamental elements” of its teaching. The Church has kept this sign of the all-powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

The dove

At the end of the flood, whose symbolism refers to Baptism, a dove released by Noah returns with a fresh olive-tree branch in its beak as a sign that the earth was again habitable (Gen 8:8-12). When Christ comes up from the water of his baptism, the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, comes down upon him and remains with him (Mt 3:16). The Church teaches that the Spirit comes down and remains in the hearts of the baptised. Christian iconography traditionally uses a dove to suggest the Spirit.