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 Mary in the center of the image among the Apostles (example). Often St. Peter will be on her right and St. John on her left, as in the first picture at right. Her inclusion imitates the pattern set by almost all Ascension images from at least the 6th century. 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 13th 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