The Problem with Trying to Portray the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit Is Not a Curly Haired Young Fellow

A lot of people have had a lot of unhelpful ideas about the Holy Spirit, but for sheer oddness, it is hard to find a stranger case than the portrayal of the third person of the Trinity as a beautiful, young, winged, curly haired boy with a widow’s peak. The most influential example of this particular error happened in Bavaria in the eighteenth century. Here is the story. A Franciscan nun named Crescentia (full name: Maria Crescentia Höss of Kaufbeuren, 1682–1744) had a vision in which “the Holy Spirit appeared to her in the guise of a youth clad in a gown and a cloak as white as snow, with bare head and curly hair and with seven flames or fiery tongues hovering around his head.”1 Crescentia’s superiors wanted to make this private vision publicly available as an image, so in 1727 they sent for a painter and had Crescentia describe her vision carefully to him. Under close guidance, the painter produced an impressive image that became popular among the nuns and their surrounding community. Copies were made, including not just paintings but engravings and statues. Crescentia was already regionally famous for saintliness and spiritual counsel, which helped these young-man-Holy-Spirit images spread.

In their purest form, they are full-body portraits of a standing youth surrounded only by light or clouds. But if you skim through European art for its various paintings of the Trinity (all of which are a little weird in one way or another), you can easily spot “Crescentine Spirits embedded into the context of the Trinity.”2 In these Trinity pictures, the oddity of Crescentia’s vision seems even more conspicuous. Jesus’s face is easily recognizable, and God the Father is portrayed as a venerable old man, which is bad but understandable—part Danielic Ancient of Days, part pagan Jupiter, part Roman pope. The images of these two persons of the Trinity at least make sense to viewers—even if we instantly feel a little pang of guilt for “recognizing” them! But that Crescentine Holy Spirit is another story. There he sits, smiling benignly, dressed in green, beardlessly teenaged or early twenty-something, with ginger hair and a prematurely receding hairline, sometimes with a dove on his shoulder.3 We want to ask, who is this guy?

The Holy Spirit

Fred Sanders

In this addition to the Short Studies in Systematic Theology series, Fred Sanders teaches readers how to hold a proper understanding of both the person and power of the Holy Spirit, exploring his role in both the Old and New Testaments. 

It is exactly the right question. As the image’s popularity spread, authorities eventually came from the pope to tell Sister Crescentia and her team that such portrayals were unauthorized, creepy, and confusing. Among other problems, they could lead people to think the Spirit had a body like the Son. Crescentia’s reply was, “Is not the Holy Spirit also a person within the Holy Trinity? If so, he surely may be represented in the shape of a person.”4 The pope (Benedict XIV) considered the case and disagreed. He issued a statement explaining that these young-man-Holy-Spirit portraits were unbiblical, unprecedented, misleading, and impious and made the church look silly. Under such strong condemnation, the images largely (though never totally) faded from use.5

Aside from being a quirky and (I hope) interesting art history vignette, the Crescentia case raises some abiding theological questions relevant to our doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The obvious one, “Who’s this curly haired fellow with wings?” is in fact quite profound. It comes from our recognition that all the details of the young-man-Spirit portrait are made up from thin air. His height, his age, his coloration, his expression, his level of physical attractiveness, his hairstyle, his posture—all simply arbitrary. Concrete visual details, since they are not from Scripture, had to be fabricated, so they were, more or less at random. And this exposes the most important questions: What was the felt need that drove this image’s producers and users?

The Danger of Adding to the Spirit

What spiritual itch did the pictures try to scratch? The answer is that people who latched onto these images wanted the Holy Spirit to seem more concretely, personally real. They wanted a mechanism to make him more like a person than he seemed to them. Crescentia’s own rhetorical question shows this: “Is not the Holy Spirit also a person within the Holy Trinity? If so . . .” If so, then we ought to be able to focus on him as somebody, as a concrete center of our attention, with details and a haircut and a face and everything.

The real Holy Spirit is better than the one we trick out in imagined details.

Wherever there is an impulse to force our ideas about the Holy Spirit to be as clear and distinct as we think they ought to be, there is an implicit criticism of the Bible. Sometimes the biblical portrayal of the Holy Spirit just seems too vague and indirect for our taste. If we were making him known, we would make him known differently, more like the other persons of the Trinity—better than what we’ve got. The story of Crescentia’s vision is a parable, even for those of us who would never think of trusting a private revelation or commissioning a painting of it. On the evangelical Protestant side of contemporary Christianity, we can point to an equally arbitrary Spirit character, the young Asian woman named Sarayu who embodies the Holy Spirit in William Paul Young’s novel The Shack. That fictional character, with freely assigned differences in height, tone, hair, sex, and so on, answers to exactly the same hunger as Crescentia’s red-haired Spirit-boy. Young simply worked in a different genre (the novel) and had different personal taste for the Spirit’s appearance, for entirely subjective reasons.

While I was writing this, a former student sent me a script from a church’s dramatic presentation of the book of Acts. The script included a role for the Holy Spirit, to be portrayed by an actor who had a monologue in the first person: “Hi, I’m the Holy Spirit; here’s what I do in the book of Acts.” I am confident that the author of that script wasn’t trying to replace the text of Acts with this new, chattier Spirit actor. The goal was obviously to make everything more direct, obvious, and immediate. Some of these errors are probably more lapses in judgment and good taste than actual heresy. But they are all symptoms of spiritual illness. More importantly, they are diagnostically obvious instances of an error nearly all of us are more subtly drawn toward.

As we strive to know the Holy Spirit the way he makes himself known in Scripture, we are constantly tempted to add a few details, to quietly nudge the Spirit in the direction of being more immediately vivid than how we meet him in Scripture. We wish the Holy Spirit were, frankly, more of a character, with more lines of dialogue and a better-defined personality profile. We should be vigilant about this temptation and should theologically repent when we see specific ways we have given in to it. For some of us, abstaining from imaginative Spirit-concretizing may be a serious spiritual struggle, but there is a great blessing on the other side. The real Holy Spirit is better than the one we trick out in imagined details, for many reasons, but fundamentally because he is real and has made himself known exactly as he sovereignly chose to.


  1. This quotation is from an eighteenth-century biography of Crescentia. It is quoted by Peter Stoll of the University of Augsburg in his unpublished 2014 paper, “Crescentia Höß of Kaufbeuren and her Vision of the Spirit as a Young Man,” p. 2. This excellent forty-two-page illustrated article is the only substantial report on the Crescentia affair available in English, as far as I know. See his faculty website, https:// www .uni -augsburg .de/. Stoll draws heavily on Karl Pörnbacher, Die heilige Crescentia Höß von Kaufbeuren, 2nd ed. (Lindenberg, Germany: Kunstverlag Josef Fink, 2002).
  2. Stoll, “Crescentia,” 22.
  3. Readers may thank me for not including an example of the images. You’re welcome..
  4. Stoll, “Crescentia,” 17–18. There is a masterful monograph on the wider implications of the Crescentia affair for images of the Trinity, by François Boespflug: Dieu dans l’art: ‘Sollicitudini nostrae’ de Benoît XIV (1745) et l’affaire Crescence de Kaufbeure (Paris: Cerf, 1984).
  5. Crescentia died with an excellent reputation, and these Spirit images are not generally remembered as a major part of her heritage. The Roman Catholic Church beatified her, and in 2001 John Paul II canonized her officially as a saint.

This article is adapted from The Holy Spirit: An Introduction by Fred Sanders.

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