Pentecost, the explosive spirit of the Holy Spirit on earth

After the Ascension ceremony, we celebrate Pentecost, both depicted by Giotto. We discover how the artist, through his art, managed to reproduce the power of the words of the Gospels by painting comprehensible scenes, which make the written pages material, with a coherent and clear pictorial narrative. A theology through images made available to all, especially the humblest and poorest

Maria Milva Morciano – Vatican City State

On the day of Pentecost, we return to observe another scene from Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Immediately next to the ascension panel, on the north wall, we find Pentecost.

In it Acts of the Apostles Let’s read:

“As Pentecost drew to a close, they were all in the same place. Suddenly there was a roar from heaven, almost a rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were. Tongues like fire appeared to them … they split and settled on each of them, and all were filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak in other tongues, thus the Spirit gave them power to express themselves. ” (2, 1-4)

In the fresco, the twelve apostles are gathered in a circle, sitting on wooden benches, under an open gallery with an air structure, with three-leafed arches of Gothic origin supported by thin columns. The tongues of fire are purple rays that radiate from above and land on the figures. Some apostles look at them as surprised, others talk to each other.

Circular composition

If we carefully compare this scene with the Last Supper, again by Scrovegni, seemingly similar, we will seem to find and recognize each apostle, both for the physiognomic characteristics and for the habit he carries. Compared to this first scene, where the halo is dark, it appears golden at Pentecost, highlighting the facial expressions as if they were transformed by grace. Also in the Last Supper, Christ sits at the front of the table on the left and not in the middle as in almost all the iconographies. The visual climax starts from Him and the effect is like a greater depth of the surroundings.






Giotto di Bondone, Last Supper (1303-1305) Scrovegni Chapel, Padova

In Giotto’s Pentecost, the composition is circular. The unity of the apostles is expressed by the circle that has no beginning and no end. They are all on the same level, brought together in perfect harmony.

Again, while in Giotto’s Ascension we have the impression of seeing the scene from below and upwards, at the exact point where the figure of Christ almost seems to crash with his hands outstretched into the sky, the plane of fire is now instead placed. at the bottom, at the surface of the earth, where the apostles are. While in the Ascension there is a total upward tension, the tongues of fire at Pentecost descend, in a mutual exchange between heaven and earth.

Mary’s presence

Two other works attributed to Giotto depict Pentecost. The first belongs to the youthful period of his life, between 1291 and 1295, and is a fresco in the right lunette on the opposite facade of the upper basilica of Assisi. The attribution is still much debated: at present only the preparatory drawing is the work of the artist, while the execution would be by other workers. In Assisi Pentecost there are no flames of fire. Above the sky, its clouds open, and a blue circle appears in the center, against which the dove of the Holy Spirit stands out. Downstairs, against the backdrop of elaborate architecture, a space opens up along the walls that the apostles are decorated with. In the middle, dressed in dark red, is the Virgin, a fundamental figure at Pentecost. This iconographic form is certainly the most prevalent in any art age, old and modern, and Mary always occupies a prominent place as the queen of the apostles and the mother of the church. The Gospels open with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon her and at Pentecost she is the means by which the outpouring of the Spirit falls upon the apostles.

Pentecost in Assisi




Pentecost in Assisi

Filled with peace, in harmony

A third work attributed to Giotto, dated a few years after Padua, between 1310 and 1318, is the tablet (5.7×43.8 cm) part of a polyptych, perhaps an altar front. This day of Pentecost, preserved in the National Gallery of London, suggests the apostles without the presence of the Virgin. The room divides the room with a high breastplate closed by a door. The Holy Spirit remains hovering just below the beautiful box ceiling and radiates its rays, which once, painted in relief with gilded tin, were supposed to reach and touch the heads of the apostles.

Some figures standing on this side of the wall of the room try to look and see what all the thunder from the sky that resonated from the space was. Especially the two young people on the sides of the door, perfectly symmetrical – painted with the same cardboard and then overturned – lean forward to better understand. That Actions they tell of a crowd of people with different backgrounds, amazed at all this and above all at the fact that the apostles are very well able to understand their different languages.

In this last work, as in the other two, that of Padua and that of Assisi, it is shown how the artist has reproduced the moment immediately after the celestial phenomena which precede the descent of the flaming rays which in Actions it is overwhelming: the sudden roar coming from the sky, the violent wind. Yet these manifestations do not seem to penetrate into the space of the space where the apostles are gathered. The sensation is a slow descent of the tongues of fire, on the group of twelve filled with peace. Astonished but composed.

Pentecost at the National Gallery in London




Pentecost at the National Gallery in London

The Tower of Babel and Pentecost

Giotto has well understood the revolution and the grace of Pentecost, which is peace and harmony, brotherhood, unity. Pentecost is the divine answer to Babel: man’s useless claim to reach heaven with a construction made of brick and bitumen. The claim to do without God Babel triggered chaos of misunderstandings, Pentecost established the harmony between Logos. In a sermon on the occasion of Pentecost 2012, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI actually explains:

“The story of Pentecost in Acts of the Apostlesas we heard at first reading (cf. On 2,1-11), contains in the background one of the last great frescoes that we find in the beginning of the Old Testament: the old story about the construction of the Tower of Babel (cf. Jan 11: 1-9). But what is Babel? It is the description of a kingdom where people have concentrated so much power that they think they no longer need to refer to a distant God and that they are so strong that they can build a path themselves that leads to heaven to open its doors. and sat in the place of God This biblical account contains its eternal truth; we can see it through history, but also in our world. With the advancement of science and technology, we have come to the power to dominate the forces of nature, to manipulate the elements, to produce living beings and to reach almost man himself. In this situation, praying to God seems like something outdated, useless, because we ourselves can build and realize what we want. But we are not aware that we are reliving the same experience of Babel. It is true that we have multiplied the possibilities of communicating, of having information, of communicating news, but can we say that the ability to understand ourselves has grown or perhaps paradoxically we understand each other less and less? Do not a feeling of mistrust, suspicion, mutual fear seem to spread among men so that they even become dangerous to each other? Let us then return to the introductory question: can there really be unity, harmony? And where?”.

We find the answer in scripture: unity can only exist with the gift of the Spirit of God, which will give us a new heart and a new language, a new ability to communicate. And this is what happened at Pentecost. That morning, fifty days after Passover, a fierce wind blew over Jerusalem, and the flame of the Holy Ghost descended upon the assembled disciples, resting on each one and lighting the divine fire within them, a fire of love capable of transformation. The fear disappeared, the heart felt a new strength, the tongues melted and they began to speak honestly so that everyone could understand the message of Jesus Christ, who died and rose again. At Pentecost, where there was division and alienation, unity and understanding were born.

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