Pentecost: The Iconography
THE FIFTIETH DAY AFTER EASTER
The Christian Pentecost celebrates the event in which the Apostles "were all together in one place: And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them parted tongues as it were of fire, and it sat upon every one of them: And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost…" (Acts 2:1-4).

The painting shown at right is typical of most Pentecost images. The Apostles are seated, and the tongues of fire sit on their heads, imparted by the Holy Spirit, who is imaged as a dove giving forth rays of light.

Until the 12th century the images presented only the Apostles, as in the second picture at right. Even in the 13th the Golden Legend leaves the Virgin out of the picture: "As to…into whom he [the Holy Spirit] was sent, into the apostles, that were clean and pure and disposed to receive the Holy Ghost." In these earlier images the central figure will be St. Peter, as at right, or Peter and Paul, as in the Berthold Sacramentary and the Pentecost Cupola at St. Marks in Venice.1

But beginning in the 12th century Pentecost images more and more frequently put the Virgin in the center of the image among the Apostles, often with Peter on her right and John on her left. Her inclusion imitates the pattern set by almost all Ascension images from at least the 6th century (example). Mary is not mentioned in scriptural accounts of the Ascension, but medieval commentators explained she was there as a type of the Church.2

By the end of the Middle Ages her presence is just about mandatory, especially with the development of the Rosary prayer. This comprises 15 "decades" of prayers memorializing 15 "mysteries" or moments in Mary's life. The 14th of these is "The Descent of the Holy Ghost Upon the Apostles and the Virgin Mary." This image is an example of the many artworks that presented the 15 mysteries and included Mary among the Apostles as the 14th.

Usually Mary is at the center of the group, and she is often singled out for special emphasis, as in the third picture at right, where the apostles kneel to her and the dove hovers over her alone.

Most images show no other figures besides the Virgin and the Apostles, but one from the 15th century adds Mary Magdalene and several include a crowd that I imagine represents the 120 "brethren" of Acts 1:15 (example). In the images with crowds the people are outdoors, but otherwise some care is usually taken to emphasize that the participants are in a room.

Artists rarely try to suggest the "mighty wind." An exception is an illumination in the Berthold Sacramentary (13th century), where allegorical figures at the four corners pour winds from large jars.3

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University

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From the Church of St. Fleuret, Estaing, France (See description page)


12th-century enamel (See description page)


Pamplona Cathedral, Spain, 1507 (See description page)

DATES

  • Being pegged to Easter, Pentecost is a "moveable feast."

NAMES

  • The traditional British name for the feast is Whitsun or Whitsunday. Most Romance languages are like American English in simply adapting the Latin Pentecostes.

ALSO SEE

NOTES

1 For the Berthold Sacramentary see the Web Gallery of Art (search for "Pentecost" and "1201-1250") or go directly to this photo of the image (retrieved 2015-01-10). For the St. Mark's cupola see Vio 130-31.

2 To this effect Mâle, Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, 194, cites Honorius of Autun's Speculum Ecclesiae, whose commentary on the Ascension has O quam sereno vultu in ordine suo stetit dum [cum?] apostolicum chorum, qui ejus ordo extitit, et per Virginem Dei Genitricem, quae ejus typum gessit, carnem suam in capite suo, id est in Redemptore suo, in Sponso suo, in Deo suo, aethera penetrare conspexit! (col. 955). As for the testimony of scripture, Acts 1:13 says that during the days after the Ascension the Apostles prayed in the upper room "with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren," but it does not actually say that Mary was there for the Pentecost event on the tenth day. Nor does Mary figure in any of the three scriptural accounts of the Ascension (Mark 16:19, Luke 24:51, Acts 2:9).

3 For the Berthold Sacramentary see above, note 1.