The Pentecost from the Benedictional of St Aethelwold by Unknown Artist

Unknown artist

The Pentecost from the Benedictional of St Aethelwold, 963–84, Illuminated manuscript, 290 x 225 mm, The British Library, London, MS BL Add. 49598, fol. 67v, © The British Library Board

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A Canopy of Flames

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Eunice Dauterman Maguire

The Acts of the Apostles and the book of Revelation combine in this full-page painted depiction of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester from 963 to 984, is known to have requested, and believed to have personally supervised, the making of the richly illustrated Benedictional, or book of blessings, which includes this image. The Apostles are seated in an ambiguous space, half heavenly vision and half earthly enclosure. As if already attending God in heaven like the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse (Revelation 4:4), they sit supported by four bands of colour, like a rainbow, in an axially divided group; but their feet rest on a firmer ground line, indicating an apse-like space framed by an arch. A canopy of flames descends toward their heads from the beak of a great diving dove, inside the arch, while angels, dipping downwards with veiled hands, confirm the coming to earth of heavenly power.

A wind-rippled canopy of red and yellow divine light (see Acts 2:2), slightly parted in the middle, shapes the long tongues of fire over the Apostles’ heads (v.3). The pointed tips seem to touch the rims of their golden haloes, while the outermost tongues meet the columns of the framing arch. It is as if Aethelwold and his illuminator (the scribe Godeman, who is believed to have later become abbot of Thorney in Lincolnshire) were hinting at sacred architecture, inspired by illustrations in imported manuscripts, and transposing the motif of parted sanctuary curtains and the actuality of shimmering overhead recesses into the empowering flames.

Aethelwold had previously enshrined his own leadership, as abbot of Abingdon, by giving the monastery a dazzling new church with a curved sanctuary, after bringing it into line with continental Benedictine reforms. As a bishop, he drew his authority from Peter, who holds heaven’s keys in this Pentecost scene, and who alone of all the Apostles in this manuscript wears a monastic tonsure.