The Coming of the Holy Spirit

Pentecost (10th century)

This amazing take on Pentecost is from the Benedictional of Archbishop Robert, New Minster, Winchester, and dated c 980 AD. Bibliothèque Municipale de Rouen, MS Y.7(369), fol. 29v.

There’s an exactness about the design, as if every detail is theologically “weighted”and thus to be analysed and considered, and yet the overall impression is one of exhuberance and empowerment.

Do you see the precision, for example, in the hand of God the Father (centre top), directing the Spirit (the dove below) from whom issues those marvellous waves of fire to the waiting people? “I will ask the Father and He will send another Comforter…” (As Jesus promised in John 14).

The location is also precisely drawn: it’s a stylized “upper room” with turrets and slates, but notice the billowing canopies as “a violent wind” hits the place (Acts 2).

But the real focus is what’s happening in the centre. The eye is drawn to the great gouts of red fire which is being poured out. It’s the telling of Acts 2: 1-3:  “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.  Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.  They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. on the apostles.” 

There’s an oddness about that last sentence which the artist seems to be emphasising. It’s one fire, but it separates and comes to rest on each of them individually. The insight is important, and often missed. There is one Spirit, and “We, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (as Paul described it in terms of communion in 1 Cor 10:17). For “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called” (Eph 4:4).

Often we over-emphasise the individual’s specific empowering by the Holy Spirit, and miss the vital point of the “one body and one Spirit” that the artist would seem to be underlining.

That’s not to say that the individual is lost in the crowd. The picture shows an interesting collection of individuals – though I admit to being surprised that so many of the apostles had red hair!

But are they apostles? The text mentions a hundred and twenty being “gathered together in one place.” The picture has eleven faces, (see that eleventh one, just squeezed in?) with each receiving its tongue of fire. Most have red hair, as I said, except the two at the top who are distinct in a couple of ways. First, they each have two tongues of fire resting on them, as if they are especially anointed. And second, the one on the left is “tonsured” with the rather severe haircut of the medieval monk, and the other older with a graying beard. The clue to their identity is in the “monk’s” hand which clutches a set of keys, marking him as St Peter.

Which leads to the assumption that his partner is St Paul, comprising the two main apostles associated with Rome. Their relative positioning would seem to mirror the twin turrets at top right and top left.

Of course, this says more about medieval Catholicism than it does about the Bible, Christian theology or the faith of Christians. But all art is interpretation and metaphor, isn’t it?

Speaking of which, there’s one more, easily overlooked detail in the artist’s presentation of the coming of the Holy Spirit. That is: The Day of Pentecost did not complete the action of the Holy Spirit. The coming of the Spirit only began then. It didn’t stop.

Look again at the gouts of flame. There is one Spirit, one directing Principle (like electricity flowing through a circuit controlled by one switch). And the Spirit separates and comes to rest on individuals. “We each receive of His Spirit.”

But look at the gushing red on those two bottom columns: it’s not stylized ornamentation but spiritual truth. That is to say, the artist is proclaiming that the Spirit is poured out to the apostles, but also through them. For who waits at the bottom of the columns? It is the people of the artist’s day (and the people of our day) who have come to worship (“together in one place“) and to receive the Holy Spirit.

As the contemporary Catholic prayer says:

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love.

Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created.
And you shall renew the face of the earth.

O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant us in the same Spirit to be truly wise and ever to rejoice in His consolation. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.


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2 Responses to The Coming of the Holy Spirit

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