Christians celebrate Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Easter, which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and brings the church into existence. It is the fulfillment of God’s promise to pour out his Holy Spirit on all flesh, empowering diverse people to exercise divine power.
The moment of Pentecost, filled the world with spirit, and opened the gates to begin a new era for humanity. Gazing at an icon generates insight into the Church’s understanding of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This contemporary icon of Pentecost was purchased by Rev Gail Greenwell for a chapel in the Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati.
The Holy Spirit Descending
A half circle of twelve descending rays is commonly found at the top of any Pentecost icon. This representation is critically important for the beginning of our narrative. “Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:2-4)
Imagine that these rays represent the uncreated energies filling the universe, the same rays any of us might feel when touched by grace. These divine rays envelope us as they come from beyond time and space.
Nowhere does Scripture teach that the Holy Spirit comes down on Pentecost in the form of a dove. Orthodoxy frowns on using a dove to represent the Holy Spirit. However many icons throughout the ages have used the symbolic rendering in icons of Pentecost, attempting to allude to a world filled with spirit that begins with a bird. How can iconographers dare to portray the all inclusive divine spirit as a small bird?
The Apostles Sitting
In the middle of the Pentecost icon we see the twelve Apostles sitting in a half circle in perfect harmony. This reflects the historic Day of Pentecost. When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were brought to one accord in one place.
One important means of understanding a narrative icon is to look at the posture taken by the main characters. The Apostles sitting in community indicate their coming into a new understanding. They are digesting the significance of this new wisdom fire which they feel within, having received it from above.
Classic Icons of Pentecost have Mary the mother of Jesus placed at the very center of the icon with six disciples on either side. She is mentioned as having been present in the Biblical text. Whether Mary is included or not, most women imagine they were there with her and at the Baptism of Christ in the river Jordan as well as at the Last Supper. However, women have not been abundantly represented in the theology, image or text. Christians are taught to believe the Holy Spirit was poured out onto all people, male and female and all of creation.
Pentecost is a World full of Spirit
In this icon, I have eliminated two of the disciples and the four “special” disciples, the ones in their priestly stoles typically adorned with giant crosses and holding their gospel books. I have substituted them for six women. This group of twelve are exceptional people who love; champions of faith who are remembered and whose earthly lives are considered instructive and worthy of imitation. They can perhaps be Salome, Bartholomew, Andrew, Luke, Mother Teresa, Mary Magdalene, Paul, Tabitha, Mark, Susana, James, and Martha sitting together in harmony. The Saint or recognizable person is not the point of the icon. Rather it illustrates our sitting together in relationship, in peace, and receiving the Holy Spirit. This group of twelve are one body and one mind in God; they sit comfortably with one another without debate as to who is best, better or right.
The icon presents Pentecost, not so much as a historical event but a spiritual reality that transcends history. Pentecost was not a one-time event but is an ongoing reality flowing into our human history. Divine grace was manifested in the God-Man Jesus Christ, but at Pentecost divine grace is manifested in the Church, the mystical body of Christ and all of creation. The Church is not a mere human organization, but a sacrament for the world.
The World Waiting for the Holy Spirit
At the bottom of classic Icons of Pentecost there would be a small arch over an old man, a lonely figure named ‘Kosmos.’ He is clothed in royal attire. He possesses the dignity which God bestowed at the beginning of creation. ‘ Kosmos’ is crowned with arms extended, holding a draped cloth containing scrolls representing the Apostolic teaching handed down through the twelve tribes of Israel.
Orthodoxy depicts this small man in the arch as defining the natural universe in its fallen state, in darkness, in isolation. The teachings handed to us by early theologians debated the coming of a time when all of creation would be redeemed. The Fall was a cosmic catastrophe. The natural environment suffered the consequences of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against their Creator. Through the Incarnation, the Creator God entered again into the material cosmos. Humanity wanted to play God and have control over creation by eating from the tree of knowledge. But God gave us Jesus who by his dying on the Cross Christ engaged the realities of sin and death again, and by his resurrection Christ defeated darkness. Here humanity would find “The Way” for the restoration of all things through His teachings and example.
For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? (Romans 8:22-25)
Kosmos is the Greek word for “world.”
One thousand years ago traditional iconographers and those viewing their work would not have known the concept of being on a planet. Pentecost, filled the world with spirit, yet up until one hundred years ago humanity did not know the idea of a world. It has been a mere sixty years ago that we can to see ourselves from space. I have adapted the image of Kosmos and in its place, positioned our planet Earth.
We are entwined as a species, the caretakers of the rock we live on, the one that we have inherited from God. I would suggest that what unites these twelve believers is their connection to one another is their waiting for a new age. This yearning for redemption becomes an eager hope through faith in Christ and fellowship for living our vows as his disciples of love. We are at the summit of consciousness maybe believing it is our responsibility to we preserve and protect this great planet Earth, without destroying it.
Mary Jane Miller is a self-taught Byzantine style iconographer with over 28 years of experience. For the first 15 years she produced unique and unorthodox collections of sacred art and continues to have them exhibited in Museums and churches in both the United States and Mexico. Miller writes luxuriously, blending historical content, and personal insights to arrive at contemporary conclusions about faith.
The author of 4 self-published books include Icon Painting Revealed, The Mary Collection, In light of Women and The Stations. Miller has been published online and in publications such as Divine Temple Russian Orthodox Journal, Faith and Forum Magazine, Liturgy Today and Profiles of Catholicism. She teaches 4 courses annually, 5 day immersion workshops throughout the US and Mexico. website: www.sanmiguelicons.com andhttp://sacrediconretreat.com/