By Anne Leader

In 2016, 15 May is the Feast Day of Pentecost, celebrated in the Western Church as the day when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus’s disciples, giving them “tongues of fire” that enabled them to preach the gospel in multiple languages. Derived from the Greek name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, Pentecost originally celebrated the grain harvest on the fiftieth day after the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exod. 23:16) in late spring or early summer, depending on the cycle of the Jewish calendar. Both Jews and Christians used the festival to honor the Giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. 

Pentecost is the second major Christian holiday after Easter and because it fell on the Jewish Pentecost, Christians ever since have celebrated it on the fiftieth day after Easter. According to Acts 2: 1-12, “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among [the disciples], and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” Members of the Jerusalem Jewish community scoffed that the Followers of the Way, as early Christians were known, were simply drunk; but Peter countered that instead they fulfilled the prophecy of Joel: “‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” (Acts 2: 14-17)

Medieval and Renaissance Italian artists have portrayed the Pentecost in many media, showing the disciples gathered around Mary with tongues of fire over their heads as stated in scripture. The Holy Spirit is represented by a white dove that emanates rays of divine light to imbue the disciples with the ability to preach in different tongues.

Italian Mosaicist, Pentecost, west cupola, 1100-50, mosaic, Basilica di San Marco, Venice

Giotto, Scenes from the Life of Christ: Pentecost, 1304-06, fresco, Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Pentecost, 1308-11, from the Maestà altarpiece,tempera on wood, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena

Master of the Dominican Effigies, Laudario of the Compagnia di Sant’Agnese, 1320s, tempera and gold on parchment, Private collection

Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci, Gradual 2 for San Michele a Murano (Folio 44), c. 1395, tempera and gold on parchment, The Morgan Library and Museum, New York

Andrea da Firenze, Miracle of Pentecost (west vault), 1366-67, fresco, Chapter Room (aka Spanish Chapel), Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Lorenzo Monaco, Antiphonary (Cod. Cor. 1, folio 111v), 1396, tempera and gold on parchment, Biblioteca Apostolica, Vatican

Matteo di Filippo Torelli, Gradual (Cod. H 74, folio 122v), c. 1413, tempera and gold on parchment, Institute of Arts, Detroit

Lazzaro Bastiani, Pentecost, 1484-90, tapestry in wool, silk and silver thread, Santa Maria della Salute, Venice

Titian, The Descent of the Holy Ghost, c. 1545, oil on canvas, Santa Maria della Salute, Venice

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