Ascension and Pentecost by Unknown Artist

Unknown artist

Ascension and Pentecost, Late 11th century, Stone relief sculpture, Cloister of the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos, Spain, Juergen Kappenberg / Wikipedia

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Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Eunice Dauterman Maguire

A relief panel in the Spanish monastery cloister of Santo Domingo de Silos: the Pentecost clouds on a stone pier visually connect heaven with earth. A corner column separates the reliefs of the Ascension and Pentecost.

In walking to the cloister from the refectory, the walk at this corner turns east, toward the doors to the library/scriptorium; the chapter house; and the south transept of the church. Passing the Pentecost relief one might notice the attentive Apostles standing with their books and scrolls, Peter holding his keys, and Mary receptive as the Church itself.

In both scenes the figures are in two closely-packed rows as they experience the divine presence under curtains of rippling cloud. The cloud-veil pulled heavenward by angels at the Ascension carries Jesus up, concealing his body, while in the Pentecost scene descending cloud layers part to reveal the earthward-pointing hand of God above the Apostles’ heads, honoured by angels. The sculptural relief, without tongues of fire, borrows the cloud from Revelation (Revelation 1:7; cf. Matthew 24:30; Daniel 7:13) and from the Old Testament’s repeated mentions of the cloud-borne glory of God (e.g. Exodus 24:16; 40:34; 2 Chronicles 5:14; 1 Kings 8:11; Ezekiel 10:4).

The framing arch-shapes of the narrative reliefs articulate in space the monastery’s spiritual embrace of salvation offered through the risen Lord and the Holy Spirit. In each scene, the feet of a participating pair of angels remain invisible in heaven, as medieval Byzantine artists routinely portray them. The angels’ gestures define the moment of God’s Spirit descending. The Apostles receiving it—instead of tilting their heads up, as at the Ascension—appear to be listening to the rushing-wind sound described in the biblical account (Acts 2:2). But the Virgin Mary, standing at the back over a central division between the group’s two halves, looks directly up and raises both hands in acknowledgement.

Her centrality, and the Apostles’ standing pose, also acknowledge traditions from the early centuries of the Church, since the Holy Spirit, coming to her in Christ’s conception, as later to the Church whom she symbolizes, had enabled salvation; and because after Christ’s resurrection and ascension, standing, instead of kneeling, during prayer marked the sanctity of the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost.