Looking at Pentecost

Jason Micheli —  June 8, 2014 — Leave a comment
St Denis 09_15This is from my friend, Janet Laisch:
This Sunday is Pentecost– a feast day as important as Christmas and Easter though less widely celebrated.  It marks the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and the birthday of the Church, which means it also celebrates us and our place in the world as icons of the Trinity. The story of Pentecost became a popular image in Christian art starting in the fourth century– as icons, grand refectory and altarpieces. Of these Pentecost paintings, Jean Restout II, a French Baroque painter, captured most energetically and dramatically the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the Apostles through use of chiaroscuro or strong contrasts of light and dark.  His Pentecost,an oil on canvas from 1732 now housed in the Louvre in Paris once adorned the refectory or monk’s dining room (see image below)  of the Abbey of Saint-Denis (see image above) just outside Paris. The refectory became one of the most prevalent places to display these images as it duplicated the communal space where the Apostles and Mary received the Holy Spirit on that historical day as told in the book of Acts.
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With its chiaroscuro, exaggerated view from below, grand size, and the extreme perspective of the rows of columns to the left and right, Jean Restout II’s painting is reminiscent of Baroque ceiling paintings.  In this image, columns delineate the space of grand cathedrals and separate holy space from pagan space. Viewing it in person, the medium of oil paint enables actual light to reflect from this painting, so the painted light and cloud representingGod glows as a light source in this painting. The cloud and bright white rays of light descending from the upper third of the painting represent God both through the cloud as mentioned in Exodus and the uncreated light so common in Byzantine icons. Light rays emit the Holy Spirit as flames which hover above the heads of Mary, the Apostles and other believers. Some individuals turn away from the light overwhelmed by it; others kneel and pray while others exit and presumably begin the work of spreading the message of the Church through words and acts. 
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Mary stands majestically following apotheosis iconography paintings of her (see image by Titian below); she appears deified as she lays her hands across her chest in reverence to the one true God. The deification of humanity happens because Jesus came down to us. The Eastern Orthodox belief that “God became man so that man could become god” reigns true in Mary. Mary who stands in the center represents the eventual theosis of humanity. God will restore humanity as icons of the Trinity as originally intended at creation.
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The gestures and actions of the other figures represent our varied places in this story. As stated in Acts, Apostles go out into the world to communicate the message of God– in any foreign language to all the world- —a dramatic overturn of the language barrier that the Tower of Babylon created in the Old Testament.  The Apostles began to speak and preach the Gospel in a multitude of tongues which were the languages of the nations of the earth.
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Unlike earlier static Byzantine icons, Jean Restout’s is kinetic. The painting’s message is the action and emotional reaction of each person to the Holy Spirit’s descent.

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Though the painting has been moved from the refectory at Abbey Saint-Denis to the Louvre, it still imparts a powerful message to each of us: heaven and earth should not be understood as a dichotomy.  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is not a prayer that we might escape from the earth, but rather that earth and heaven might come together.  This prayer describes how the Ascension and Pentecost are linked: in the Ascension, part of earth “moves” into the “heavenly sphere” since Christ is no longer visible to us, and at Pentecost, part of heaven — the Holy Spirit — invades the earth. We must not forget: the Holy Spirit resides here permanently. Therefore Pentecost is not only an historical event but a changed world and an invitation to all of God’s people. Pentecost occurs during the Jewish Shevout or harvest festival so we might understand that theanointed disciples are about to harvest the world. We are pulled into this story and have a direct role to play in the work of the church and our relationship with others.

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An icon of the Pentecost helps explain this point.  A standardized Byzantine Pentecost icon (above) represents the Apostles sometimes without Mary seated around a table; one seat, the head of the table is intentionally left empty. This empty seat is Christ “invisible” to humankind though eternal; God is represented as the blue and silver circular mandorla or uncreated light and the Holy Spirit is embodied in the rays of light descending from the uncreated light and the flames hovering above each of the Apostles’ heads.  The semi-circular wooden table is intentionally left open so that viewer can join the group. The table is a direct reference to a meal both Eucharistic –this world and a meal for the end of time–eschatological. “King Cosmos” stands below the table holding a scroll surrounded by the darkness the world must overcome. King Cosmos represents the world, which the anointed disciples are about to harvest, and he and several Apostles hold scrolls intended to represent the word of God translated for all to know.

RubilevTrinityAt Pentecost, the Trinity has now been revealed to us; thus our theosis and salvation begins now, here on earth because of this revelation. Abraham was given the privilege of seeing a living image of the Triune God as told in Genesis 18: 1-3.  The Byzantine Old Testament Trinity icon (above) captures part of the mystery of the trinity– the relationship between three persons of the Godhead—Father, Son and Holy Spirit (above). Made by God in the image of the Trinity, we too are intended to be in relationship to each other–created with the ability and need to love beyond ourselves. Rather than a limited love, the Trinity teaches this love is infinite.  Becoming a Trinity icon means we become fully human. 

 

 

 

 

Jason Micheli

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