The Icon of Pentecost
The Feast of Pentecost is not only the commemoration of an historical event, but a celebration of a present reality: the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Likewise, the icon of Pentecost is much more than the depiction of a past event: it is also a representation of the Church.
The icon depicts the event described in Acts 2:1-4, when the Holy Ghost descended as tongues of fire upon the Apostles gathered together and enabled them to preach in different languages.
This icon shows us the divine guidance given to the hierarchic Church in the conversion of the world. That is the core message of the icon of Pentecost. It is not so much about the physical manifestations of the descent of Holy Ghost as it is the substantial presence of the Spirit in the Church, acting through the Church, to sanctify the world.
Two Iconographic Traditions
The Orthodox icon representing the Feast of Pentecost is probably unfamiliar to most Westerners.
In the Latin tradition, the tongues of fire and the presence of the Holy Mother of God are emphasized along with, of course, the twelve apostles. In the Orthodox tradition, icons of the Pentecost don’t always depict tongues of fire. Instead, at the top of the icon a circle or semicircle represents heaven and from its center, twelve rays point downward toward the twelve apostles, symbolizing the descent of the Holy Spirit.
Also, the All-Holy Mother of God is absent from the scene in most of the Orthodox icons—which is strange because the Acts of the Apostles make a point of telling she was present.
The explanation is that the Pentecost icons of the Orthodox Church, unlike the images of the event in the Latin Church, stress the underlying ecclesiological meaning of Pentecost and less so the narrative details of the descent of the Spirit or observable physical facts, as reported in Acts.
God the Holy Spirit
The source of the unity and harmony of the Apostles is in the semi-circle at the top of the icon, showing the descent of the Holy Ghost. From the semi-circle rays of light shine down to illumine them.
Sometimes the “tongues of fire” described in Acts are shown at the tips of the rays, ready to descend upon the Apostles. Other times, the tongues of fire are shown already within the halos of each of the seated Saints. Some icons of Pentecost show a dove, either within the mandorla at the top of the icon, or even descending upon those gathered in the upper chamber. Given the appearance of the Holy Ghost as a dove during Christ’s Baptism, it is understandable that this physical image of the Spirit is also used in Pentecost icons.
However, the Holy Spirit appeared as tongues of flame at Pentecost, and a dove at Christ’s Baptism, being—in reality—neither of these things. Therefore, for the Orthodox tradition, it appears as inappropriate to depict the Holy Ghost as a dove at Pentecost, or indeed in any icon except those for the Baptism of Our Lord.
Blessed are You, O Christ our God, who made fishermen all-wise, by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit, and through them, drawing all the world into Your net. O Loving One, glory be to You (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Apolytikion for Pentecost).
The Apostles are seated in a semi-circle, representing their unity and harmony—and the semi-circle is open towards us, so that we as observers are drawn into that unity.
Contrasting with the uniformity of the semi-circle, and in harmony with the hierarchic detail, there is sometimes a variety of poses in the figures of the apostles. This goes to the inner meaning of the icon: although there is the one Spirit—one Body—each member is given special gifts.
In the Orthodox tradition, the apostles are frequently depicted in inverse perspective: the size of the figures grow bigger the closer they are to the central seat. It prevents the apostles who are near the back of the semicircle from being painted as smaller, which would happen in the rendering of most normal paintings. Thus, no apostle appears greater than another, stressing that they are all equals.
They are usually represented holding scrolls, symbols of having received the gift of teaching.
Rather than a general disturbance—often portrayed in Western images of Pentecost—caused by the descent of the Spirit, Eastern icons of the event express an overall sense of order, calm and solemnity, to show the unity and singleness of purpose of the hierarchic Church in converting the world.
Stressing the point that the icon of Pentecost is also an image of the Church, frequently are represented others than the original twelve Apostles. St. Peter sits to the right of the center seat, and St. Paul to the left. St. Paul, of course, was not present at Pentecost, neither were St. Luke and St. Mark, the Evangelists, who are also frequently depicted. Their presence, of course, makes other three Apostles disappear from the icon, as the number of twelve has to be maintained. But that alteration is not relevant here, as the meaning of the icon is the substantial presence of the Spirit in the Church. Nonetheless, the Western tradition is usually more literal in its depiction, restricting itself to the twelve original Apostles (including St Matthias in Judas’ place).
The “Teacher’s Seat”
In the Orthodox tradition, a striking aspect of the Pentecost icon is the empty space at the center. This central seat is a place of honor, the “Teacher’s Seat” around which the Apostles are gathered.
Why is it empty? Because it is the seat Christ should be sitting in, Who has ascended physically into Heaven. Yet Jesus promised many times that though He would leave them physically, He would instead give to them the Holy Spirit as a comforter, advocate, and guide. This promise was first realized at Pentecost, and is still true today. Therefore, the icon, which is also an icon of the Church, shows the Apostles gathered in unity, sustained by the power of the Holy Ghost, surrounding Christ Who is invisibly present. The world, Cosmos, is at their feet, ready and waiting to be harvested through the passing on of Christ’s teaching.
But the Orthodox Church stresses the empty seat and the depiction of the Apostles as equals to make the icon reflect their ecclesiological vision—a Church in which there is neither preeminent authority, nor a “Vicar of Christ,” but which is guided by a “college of equals,” the successors of the Apostles.
The Virgin Mary
On the other hand, in the Western tradition the icons of Pentecost usually show the Mother of God in the center, occupying the “Teacher’s Seat.”
Placing the Mother of God in that central position proposes her as the ultimate exemplar of a Christian. With Jesus Christ ascended into Heaven, the Holy Ghost acts within people, and through the Saints Christ is manifested in the world. Mary is therefore shown as the best example we have, and the person on earth who most resembled Jesus Christ (both physically as His mother and spiritually as His disciple).
But that central position also expresses the Latin understanding of the Mother of God as image and Mother of the Church. The ecclesiological meaning is stressed by the singling out of St. Peter, marked by her inclination towards him, and the Apostle’s gesture of entreat towards her.
At the bottom of the icons in the Orthodox tradition there is another semi-circle, showing an old king against a dark background. He is often named as Kosmos and represents all the peoples of the world, rather than the whole of creation.
He is sitting “in darkness and the shadow of death” (Lk. 1:79), the world which had formally been without faith and had suffered under the weight of Adam’s sin. He is aged, to show the corruptibility of the world. The red garment he wears symbolizes pagan or the devil’s blood sacrifices, and the crown signifies sin which ruled the world. Yet he also holds a blanket containing scrolls representing Apostolic teaching… Though in darkness, the descent of the Holy Ghost has not only reached the Apostles, but also all corners of the world into which the Apostles will preach the Gospel.