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Forward-Going Energy

Comparative Commentary
Commentary by
Eunice Dauterman Maguire

Space in each of these three depictions, created less than two centuries apart, makes strong but subtle theological arguments across time.

Each was made for a monastic community, in a time of remarkable forward-going energy, encouraged by links to a royal or imperial court. The event of Pentecost, in each, becomes at once topical and universal, by expanding, inflecting or selecting from the biblical narrative. Each gives the story visual expression, not as a simple narrative with a message of unity in diversity, but as a channel in time and in local as well as cosmic space, for multiple and deeply confluent understandings about the divine gift of salvation as delivered by the Church.

The richly embellished page commissioned by Aethelwold (963–84), confirms his purpose of dedication and direction to those who would receive each benediction from the bishop, and go out gifted, like the Apostles from Pentecost. The eleventh-century Hosios Loukas mosaic dome above the living sequences of liturgical movements illustrates their heavenly origin as ceremonies in the Church to which the Apostles had given the divine Word. The stone relief from the cloister of the Silos Monastery offers a spiritual sense of direction to people moving around its cloister and turning a corner from one walk to another.

All of them, by linking heavenly with earthly space, deepen earthly time with heavenly harmonics. They relate the monastic present to the apostolic past, the very beginning of the Church, validating godly lives. In these scenes the Apostles, still very much as earthly agents, become empowered for their special role by the Holy Spirit’s gift to each of them individually. And each of the three depictions connects this dramatic moment to the continuing heavenly mission of those who, by following the apostolic teachings, represent the divine authority that Pentecost bestowed.

The structure of the imagery in each of the three scenes brings heaven penetratingly to earth. On the page, and on the cloister pier relief, as much as in the composition of the scene in the dome mosaic, architectural relationships help to articulate the connection between biblical time and the present. According to many traditions of Christian doctrine, Pentecost is about understanding the divine origins of the Church itself, as endowed with the power and responsibility to bring people to salvation through the word of God. Making the Spirit’s descent visible illustrates the Trinity not just as a doctrinal construct, but as a divine relational reality, capable of responding to human need. Pentecost fulfilled Christ’s promise to his followers: he, as the divine Son (the second person of the Trinity), would ask the Father (the first person of the Trinity), who is Creator of all, to send them a Comforter in the form of the Spirit of Truth (John 14:16–17, 26; 15:26; 16:7–13). This Spirit is identified in theological tradition as the Trinity’s third person: one who would come to earth in ‘another’ form than through Christ’s human incarnation, and would be with them forever.

All three works of art transform the enclosed space in which the event took place— probably the upper room described in Acts 1:13. The Apostles gather in this ‘one place’, sitting, to celebrate Pentecost as the Jewish holiday that took place on the fiftieth day after Passover (Acts 2:1–2). While the Synoptic Gospels recount how Jesus’s last earthly meal (the Last Supper) was a Passover meal in an intimate room, the implicit purpose of the Holy Spirit’s descent is to send out the Apostles from the time and place where they were gathered in Jerusalem.

In roughly the same historical period as the Church was being formed, the Jewish festival of Pentecost became a time for commemorating the giving of the Law to Moses at the burning bush.

It is in the context of that celebration that the Apostles receive divine flames, enabling them to go out and establish Christ’s new law among all peoples: Jews by birth and Jewish proselytes; people from ‘every nation under heaven’ (v.5). Three thousand join their number that day (v.41). As Peter, rising to his feet with the eleven others, explains in Acts 2:38, the gift of the Holy Spirit is offered to all who accept Jesus Christ.