Acts of the Apostles 2:3-4: “and there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the spirit gave them utterance.”
The episode of the Pentecost is not narrated in the gospels. It is instead narrated in the second book of Luke: the Acts of the Apostles. Luke writes that those who followed Jesus continued his mission in Jerusalem, Palestine and to the ends of the earth. He is convinced that the spirit of Jesus and God had given them the strength to continue the mission. The Holy Spirit is like a violent wind that fills all spaces or a fire that warms the soul. It is like a powerful force that breaks down the barriers of race and language. When Luke wrote these words - 50 years after the death of Jesus - the Apostles (including some who only spoke the dialect of Galilee) actually went to the ends of the known world. Pentecost is the beginning of spreading the word, which will unite all men into one family.
Pentecost (in ancient Greek, “fiftieth day”) was a traditional Jewish celebration: the feast of Thanksgiving. In the Jewish religion, Pentecost is one of the three festivities called Shalosh Regalim (three pilgrimages), denoting pilgrimage festivals - to Jerusalem. It was originally a Jewish festival and therefore refers to Shavuot (literally: weeks), celebrated seven weeks after Passover, counting from the second day of Passover, the 16th of Nisan. The Jewish holiday was linked to the first fruits of the harvest season and the revelation of God on mount Sinai, where God gave the Torah to the Jewish people. The seven weeks of the Omer correspond to the period of mourning in memory of the misfortunes the people of Israel suffered, which ends with the festival of Lag Ba Omerdi, Shavuot and is a joyful feast of thanks for the gift of the Torah.
Christian tradition instead celebrates Pentecost as the coming of the Holy Spirit, gift of the risen Christ and the birth of the Church. In the Christian religion, Pentecost falls on the fiftieth day after Easter (hence the name), on Sunday. It is therefore, a moveable holiday, depending on the date of Easter. Throughout history, even though Jews and Christians consider the same books sacred (respectively, Tanakh and the Old Testament), they have turned away from each other because of their respective interpretation of the books. Jesus Christ’s disciples followed what was narrated in the Acts of the Apostles and consequently Pentecost lost its original Hebrew meaning in favour of describing the descent of the Holy Spirit, which signified the new law God had given to the faithful, and the birth of the Church beginning with the community of Jerusalem.
Acts 2,1-8.12) “and when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. and suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. and they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?..."
The descent of the Holy Spirit had been prophesied in the gospel of Luke (24-49) and in the gospel of John ( 14,16-17, 15.26 and 16.7), while there is no mention of it in the gospels of Mark and Matthew. The description of the event is not found in the letters of St. Paul, rather only in the Acts of the Apostles. Some characteristics of the descent of the Holy Spirit (thunder and fire) recall the theophany of God on mount Sinai narrated in Exodus, while in some parts of the Old Testament, such as Genesis and the first Book of kings, the impetuous wind is a symbol of the power of God. The apostles teaching in other languages is instead a new element, and signifies that the message Jesus conveyed was intended not only for Jews; rather, it was a universal message.
Aside from its theological and symbolic meaning, it is not possible to prove the historic authenticity of the Pentecost episode. According to Hans Kung, it could be possible that when Jesus’ disciples were gathered together during the Jewish feast of Pentecost a collective mystical ecstasy occurred. The narration of the episode was passed along over the generations and Luke re-elaborated it. The celebration of Pentecost has become a permanent holy day on the liturgical calendar. It is also called the feast of the Holy Spirit and concludes the festivities of the Easter celebrations. The feast of Pentecost falls on Sunday and is celebrated by the Catholic Church, as well as the Orthodox Church and the Protestant Churches. The Christian apologist, Tertullian, (155-220), was the first to speak of Pentecost as a special feast in honour of the Holy Spirit. At the end of the fourth century, Pentecost was a religious celebration and those who had not been able to receive the rites of baptism during the Easter Vigil, were baptised on that occasion.
The Holy Spirit is therefore Pentecost, which is the name of the third person of the Holy Trinity, as well as the basis for the blessing of the faithful, the unification of the Church, and the inspiration of the authors of the holy scriptures. It is he who assists the teachers of the Church and the faithful to bring knowledge of the truth (it is also called the “paraclete”; i.e., ‘comforter’).
The description of the Holy Spirit depicted as a divine person does not exist in the Old Testament. The “Spirit of God” appears as a divine force that naturally generates cosmic life, prophetic gifts, divine grace and the moral propensity to obey the commandments.
In the New Testament, the Spirit is still sometimes portrayed as an impersonal, charismatic force. Together, however, the ‘personality’ and the ‘divinity’ of the Holy Spirit are revealed. in the gospel of St. John, Jesus says to pray to the Father to send the paraclete, who will always stay with his disciples and teach them the truth (John, 14-16) and in St. Paul, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is joined with that of divine redemption. The Holy Spirit has rarely been represented in human form. It is portrayed in the form of a dove at the annunciation and at the baptism of Jesus, and it is like a luminous cloud at the transfiguration. In the New Testament, though, the divine spirit is explicitly indicated as tongues of fire at Pentecost and like breath in the gospel of John (20, 22); “then said Jesus to them again, “peace be unto you. as my Father hath sent me, even so send i you. and when he had said this, he breathed on them and said unto them, “receive ye the Holy Ghost. whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained.” “
In the gospels it is written that Jesus had often announced the coming of the Holy Spirit as mostly resembling fire, which like water is the paradoxical symbol of life and death. Fire has a pivotal place in every religion. It is often the symbol of a deity and worshiped as such. The Sumerian God of fire, Gibil, was considered the bearer of light and purification; in Rome there was an eternal flame, the symbol of life and strength, guarded continuously by the vestal virgins.
The theme of Pentecost has extensive iconography, particularly in Medieval art, which established the use of depicting the Holy Spirit descending on the Virgin Mary and the apostles in the upper room, in the symbolic form of tongues of fire and not in the form of a dove.
The compositions often refer to the last supper, which was held in the same location; that is, the cenacle, or upper room with the same group of people. Mary has replaced Jesus and Matthias has replaced Judas. This representation communicates the value of the apostolic congregation and its following, as well as the will to spread the word to the ends of the world.
The Syrian rabbula gospels (ad 586), now safeguarded in the laurentian library in Pentecost, represents the oldest portrayal of Pentecost. The scene is set beneath an arch. The apostles are lined up in two rows on either side of the Virgin Mary, flames are coming down and the divine dove is flying high above. The most complex Syrian representation of Pentecost is on one of the Monza Ampulla (6th century ad) on which Jesus Christ is depicted in an almond that angels are carrying.
Here are many famous representations of the episode; such as the mosaics in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo (12th century), the mosaics in the Monreale Cathedral in Palermo (12th century) and the mosaics in St. Mark’s in Venice (13th century). The western adaptation of the episode is often set in an architectural background, within an octagonal or circular enclosure, in which the apostles are sitting grouped around St. Peter or the Virgin, who, however, do not always appear in the representation. The personification of the world is not represented. In some art works, however, there are representatives of various populations that have been evangelized by the apostles.
During the twelfth century there was an interesting innovation in the depiction of the Pentecost. In a fresco painted by Saint-Gilles in montoire the personification of the Holy Spirit and the figure of Christ are in an almond, from which the tongues of fire descend upon the apostles.
Pagan populations are depicted in the sculptures of the portal of Vézelay, which Fabre interprets as Christ’s proclamation to the apostles for their future mission.
The first architectural settings of the Pentecost episode appear in the fourteenth century in Italy, and at the same time positioning the apostles sitting in a circle is abandoned. In these depictions, pagan populations are often portrayed, suggesting their evangelization by the apostles.
Giotto painted a fresco of a loggia in the Scrovegni Chapel, most likely with his assistants, under which Jesus (the figure whose face is covered by the column and you only see the unmistakable locks of hair falling about his shoulders) and eleven apostles sat. One apostle, Judas, is not there as he had died. Consistent with the oldest iconographic tradition the Madonna is not portrayed, while instead in biblical narrations she was present with other women when the wind of the spirit blew on Christ’s followers. Almost twenty years later, the Tuscan painter returned to the theme of Pentecost and painted seven tablets with stories of Jesus. Giotto addressed the theme of the Pentecost using an innovative space solution, which also demonstrates his artistic growth. The portico is supported by pointed arches, which gives way to a room where the walls are painted only half way up to leave a clear view of the interior and the beautiful ceiling decorations. In this representation, the dove is the symbol of the Spirit and is placed centrally at the top, while the rays that descend on the apostles like tongues of fire are portrayed by small flames above each apostle’s head.
Nordic art in the 14th century and later, continued the iconographic tradition of placing the apostles in a circle.
The panel of the episode of the Pentecost was among the last ones Ghiberti created for the North Door of the Baptistery in Pentecost, where the compositions appear structured around a single central figurative element (Krautheimer, 1937; 1956). The representation follows the established fourteenth century iconography: the Virgin is in the centre and the apostles are placed on each side of her. They are in the upper room where they are receiving the Holy Spirit and outside the building, there are pagans who will later be evangelized. The composition is set in a central and symmetrical perspective. The Virgin Mary is positioned in the central cusp of the quatrefoil frame, which in this case is used to emphasize the architectural setting. The Madonna and the apostles, caught in the ecstasy of the Holy Spirit, are at the top of the panel, in the background, on the balcony of the loggia. The architectural setting is a classic design with decorative themes, such as the festoons with plant motifs that are superbly represented in the entablature of the loggia. Below, under the arches of the loggia, the figures of pagans dressed in different clothing are represented in the act of discussing among themselves. The figures are in high relief and dominate the scene with an elegant counterpoint of movement that affords the panel dynamism opposed to the immobility of the apostles and the Virgin Mary. The scene is set on a shelf, decorated with plant motifs, supporting the figures in the foreground .
Fra’ Angelico used a similar iconographic approach in his painting of the Pentecost, in Florence.
One of the most recent representations of the Pentecost episode, within the religious sphere, is the impressive neo-Renaissance fresco created by the Russian artist Oleg Supereco for the Dome of the restored Cathedral of Noto in the province of Syracuse in Sicily.