Divine encounter: Explore the beauty of Pentecost through art

13 mins read
Pentecost
“Pentecost” by Jean Restout the Younger. Public domain

This week, we embark on an enlightening journey for Pentecost with renowned Catholic art historian Elizabeth Lev. Travel through the hushed halls of time, where strokes of genius and whispers of devotion converge. With a scholar’s eye and a storyteller’s flair, Lev unravels the rich symbolism and profound significance woven into the masterpieces depicting this pivotal moment in Christian tradition. From the fiery descent of the Holy Spirit to the trembling hearts of disciples, each brushstroke and sculpted curve serves as a portal to the divine encounter.

But beyond the canvas and marble lies a deeper narrative — one of faith, community and the power of transformation. Through Lev’s expert guidance, we traverse the centuries, witnessing how artists across cultures and epochs have grappled with the ineffable mystery of Pentecost, seeking to capture its essence in pigment and light.

Join us as we unlock the hidden truths and timeless beauty enshrined in the art of Pentecost during this quest to unravel the sacred mysteries that continue to inspire and ignite the souls of believers around the world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pentecost art through Church history

Our Sunday Visitor: Pentecost, the feast of the manifestation of the Church, sends the apostles out to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. What significance does the art of Pentecost have in the history of the Catholic Church?

Elizabeth Lev
Elizabeth Lev CNS photo/Robert Duncan

Elizabeth Lev: I think the Church has been trying to represent ideas of Pentecost from the very beginning. Perhaps it was on a smaller scale, when we see early Christian art and we see this kind of vision of the commission of Jesus handing the law on to Peter and Paul and this idea of trying to spread the word. But I think we start to really try to represent the supernatural, which becomes much more complicated in the history of art, as we get closer and closer to the first millennium. That’s where we see our first real serious attempts to represent Pentecost.

Our Sunday Visitor: How did Christians begin to depict this seminal event? What were the first artistic mediums used to portray it?

Elizabeth Lev: Paint and mosaic. Paint is our rough draft form of art. … Even though we have a lot of relief sculpture in that first period of 313 to about 500, … really the original art for the Christians was painting. It was those catacomb images that they frescoed on the walls. And since most of this art takes place inside churches, the most efficient and, frankly, least expensive way of producing works of art was through fresco painting. So we see more imagery that tends to be produced in that medium.

The symbols of Pentecost

Our Sunday Visitor: It’s difficult to depict the Holy Spirit, compared to God the Father or portrayals of Jesus Christ. What particular symbols do Christians employ? How do we convey the richness, the extraordinary nature, of what’s happening at Pentecost?

Bronze panel of the interior doors of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls. Public domain

Elizabeth Lev: So that, of course, is the difficulty. The difficulty is trying to represent the presence of the Holy Spirit. There are very, very good representations of the second person of the Trinity. You occasionally find a coy image of the first person of the Trinity sitting someplace or peeking in from an upper corner. But it has really been a fascinating stumbling block for Christians to try to represent the person of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s lack of embodiment is what makes it complicated. I think one of my favorites is the one from 1070 from St. Paul Outside-the-Walls where you see in a bronze panel — so this time they’re trying to produce something in what would be a sculptural medium, but at the time they’re producing it, it’s not really a relief sculpture. It’s not what you and I would consider sort of the sculpture where the figures stand out, but it’s actually an etching that takes place onto a bronze panel. So it’s something that’s essentially one step away from a cloisonné. And so you have this image of people sitting in a sort of a semicircle and these little bands that lead up from above their heads — and you see these little flames drawn into each one of these bands. This is their representation of Pentecost, which is a really interesting way of tackling the problem.

I’m especially interested in these artistic attempts to represent something where the art isn’t quite ready to go, right? The art isn’t quite there yet, but they’re pushing the art to its absolute limit. It’s something that we can all relate to because, isn’t it half the fun of some of these great breakthroughs in movies, when you see the studio that wants to visually represent a story and they don’t know how to do it and then they begin to figure it out. And that’s a very, very exciting thing for modern viewers to watch in the world of entertainment. But in the world of art, once upon a time, it was being able to represent these sacred stories that seemed almost impossible to visually represent given the limitations of what art could do without perspective, without modeling, without this, without that. But to see the artist coming up with solutions is one of those beautiful things of studying the history of art.

Portraying the Holy Spirit

Our Sunday Visitor: We do have something to go on, right? As you mentioned, the beautiful image from St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, where we have flames, the image of a dove for the Holy Spirit, the symbolic representations given to us from Scripture. Do you think that this helps or hinders artists in their expression of this mystery? Is it limiting to have such a clear sign or symbol?

Elizabeth Lev: I think in the case of the Holy Spirit, it really does not have that clear a sign and symbol. So it makes it actually much more open for artists to think about what they’re going to do. After all, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove. It’s this gust of wind. These are all sensations, these words are meant to evoke sensations. So for painters or for sculptors or for anybody working in a still media that does not create a mighty crack or a whoosh — or something that seems to be flying by like a dove whooshing by you — it becomes an interesting and very open challenge to the artists to come up with many different concepts. So what are we thinking of? We’re thinking about something that’s descending from above. So the artist is always going to have to deal with sort of an upper part of the space and the lower part of the space. We have this sense of community, because they’re all together. They’re in this closed upper room. So how do we represent this community and how do we represent the idea that they’re going to be sent out into this world, this commission, this mission that they’re given? This is where the artists really are going. And so if they want to show a dove, that’s terrific. But where the dove is going to be coming from, how you convey this dove, which represents the Holy Spirit, igniting these people on fire with the Holy Spirit. How do we convey the multiplicity of languages? It’s got endless possibilities and it is something that would be well worth — as we’re sitting here on the eve of Jubilee 2025 — thinking about how we are set to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations. How can we ignite that fire in 2025 artistically?

Iconic representations

Our Sunday Visitor: What are some of the most iconic representations of Pentecost in art? What makes them noteworthy? If there are two or three depictions of Pentecost that every Catholic should know, what are they?

The ceiling of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice features a ceiling mosaic centered around the Holy Spirit. Adobe Stock

Elizabeth Lev: So the first one I have to say, it’s very personal. I realize the reason why I like it so much is because of my own personal experience. It’s not so much the academic or the art historian or the counter-Reformation scholar. It’s just that I was in San Marco for Pentecost in Venice one year. And I went to Mass, and I was standing in this sort of, you get shunted everywhere in Venice … they sort of shunt you off into a corner. We went into this little corner of a chapel, and the Pentecost Mass was going on. And suddenly I looked above my head, and I saw I was standing underneath the Dome of the Pentecost. This is probably about 15 years ago and I still remember looking up and being, “Wow, the Holy Spirit is coming down right now, on this day.” So how did they do that, these artists in San Marco? They use this magnificent glittering skin of gold mosaic. This was the media that the Venetians excelled at … and they were the great tessera makers for everybody in Europe who was making mosaics. And the mosaic has this sort of, from its more Constantinople influence, it has just a clean sheet of gold. So you look up and it’s just this luminosity, this light — and the rest of the church is very dark — so you have this incredible light. … It just made you feel part of a community from past and present. It opened up the ceiling to this supernatural, to this heaven, to this light, to this illumination. And for me, it was like, “Ah, this is what Pentecost art is meant to do.”

It’s sort of in the lineup of my favorite images. I would say, my all-time favorite is obviously the representation from St. Peter’s Basilica, which, in my opinion, is an image. We call it “the altar of the chair,” but it is, in my opinion, the most brilliant of the images that try to represent a concept of Pentecost because it really brings together all the arts. You have painting and sculpture and architecture, all drawn together in a single.

“Altar of the Chair of St. Peter” by Gian Lorenzo Bernini Public domain

We were talking about St. Peter’s, as the one that I think is the most successful. You can argue that it is the “altar of the chair.” But I think, at the end of the day, what Bernini is trying to do is illustrate Pentecost. Even if you think about it in terms of a competition with Michelangelo, who has made images of the first and second person of the Trinity that you just can’t beat. And there’s Bernini running around in Michelangelo’s shadow, looking for the thing that he could do that Michelangelo can’t. And he ends up doing the non-embodied image, which was always impossible for Michelangelo to represent. And so, the way he’ll produce the “altar of the chair”/Pentecost is by bringing together all three of the arts. And indeed, you could say he’s bringing together even more arts than just painting, sculpture and architecture. But he’s the first artist to really think like a movie director. And what inspires him to think in this brand new out-of-the-box way in the history of art is indeed the attempt to represent the Holy Spirit. So he starts with his architecture hat on as he puts a hole in the back of the church so that, at the end of the day as the sun sets, the light comes in and it passes through this window, which is representative of the Holy Spirit, but more importantly, since the window is made of alabaster, today made out of stained glass, but nonetheless, it’s the golden light that comes in that is meant to be representative of the tongues of flame of the Holy Spirit. After that, you have clouds that seem to be pouring out of space, with the Cherubim and the Seraphim. So we have that sense of the presence of divinity. So you have these clouds pouring out of the heavens, we have this clear evidence of divinity because we have these angels that are there to serve it. And then the clouds come down and they support the immense throne of St. Peter with the Church Fathers around him. But the idea is that we’re looking at something that lifts up, that holds up, that supports the magisterium as we’re all standing before that altar and about to be sent out into the world with our witness. So I think it really is Bernini’s way of trying to represent the Holy Spirit and particularly the mission of Pentecost in 1660.

Opening the heavens

Our Sunday Visitor: Do you have a third favorite image?

Elizabeth Lev: I find the one by Jean Restout the Younger, which was made originally for the Abbey of Saint-Denis in Paris, it was like four meters by seven meters, just the sheer size of the painting makes it memorable. What he’s trying to do, essentially, is a ceiling painting. He’s trying to do a Baroque ceiling painting. But he’s painting for the wall of the refectory, so that’s not going to work. But the way he paints it, creates this idea of this solid space down below. So we’re looking at, on top of everything else, this very classical-structured architecture. Everything has measure and everything has order and human beings have controlled the space. But the upper part just opens up into these clouds and we see that this eruption of heaven into our space is not really meant to be contained, but is meant to spill out into the space of the viewer. So once again, sort of putting more and more responsibility on the viewer because Pentecost is something that is part of our actual mission every single day as Christians: to go out and spread the good news of the Gospel. I think each one of these is building up to a crescendo and then, after Restout, that crescendo ends.

Pentecost by Jean Restout
“Pentecost” by Jean Restout the Younger. Public domain

Our Sunday Visitor: The Restout is amazing because the columns are falling outward. They’re literally opening up the heavens. That’s amazing to me.

Elizabeth Lev: Exactly. It’s this how much we try to contain and control and we think we’ve got everything and right down to those apostles who were sitting in that room thinking, “Okay, we’re just going to sit here until we’ve got everything under control and things are manageable.” And it’s like, “No, things aren’t really going to be manageable. It’s not about it being manageable. It’s about trusting me. Let’s go. Time to go make converts.”

A religious sister’s painting

Our Sunday Visitor: Now, do you have a favorite depiction of Pentecost that you think is underappreciated? One that’s maybe not as grand as these three depictions you’ve mentioned, but one that you think everyone should know?

Elizabeth Lev: I do. Again, I think there are some of these that are really fun. There was the religious sister, cusp of the 15th and 16th century, her name was Plautilla Nelli and she was a painter. And for her convent, she produced paintings. As it just so happens, she also produced a very lovely image of the Pentecost. And while I’m sure the aficionados of Raphael and Michelangelo would say, “eh.” But the fact is, this wonderfully feminine version, where the key figures at the heart of the work are all women, is very charming and very delightful. It’s, again, a reminder that this mission is not a boy’s club. It’s for all of us. And this is very meaningful particularly in the ambiente, in the placement of these religious sisters; it really had a very special significance.

Public Domain | Wikimedia Commons

Our Sunday Visitor: Of course, I hadn’t seen that painting until you mentioned it, but I really was quite taken with it. In particular, I like the little squids coming down that are not the flames. But there’s like the rain of fire that she’s put in, that’s really descending. I loved that.

Elizabeth Lev: What I love about it, is that it’s very raccolta, as we would say in Italian, the way that one remains enclosed or sort of focused in prayer. And I think that’s a very nice representation, it’s very complementary to some of these bursting-out-and-breaking-at-the-seam types of images where these are religious sisters who are going to spend their time in the convent and that this way of participating in Pentecost, there are different ways of participating. There’s the shout-it-from-the-rooftops, but there’s also that prayerfulness, that contemplative, that quiet way in which we participate in the spreading of the, or in prayer.

Modern depictions

Our Sunday Visitor: I want to get to some of the latter images you included when we began our back and forth. People tried to pick up the spirit of newness from Pentecost and they’re looking to do something new in more figurative depictions. What do you think succeeds or doesn’t succeed about newer attempts to depict Pentecost?

“Pentecost” by Jen Norton Public domain

Elizabeth Lev: I think the problem that I keep running into with a lot of the images I see of Pentecost in the modern era are, either they look very cartoonish, it’s — you might as well make them out of felt. So it’s almost like a very sort of cartoonish, babyish type of “Look at the pretty colors,” but without a sense of mission. Or, the ones that I find the most irritating, are the ones that just like, ‘Oh Pentecost is happening in my living room and nothing’s really happening, so let’s make a lot of attention to the peeling wallpaper or the people in the very drab speed. The Holy Spirit was a little different, which sounds a lot like Caligula when he sat in his room for six weeks and came out thinking he was god. But I mean just instead of thinking that this is just gonna be ohh, I’m just going to feel a little bit differently or I’m going to apply my energies a little bit differently, but really a sense of what this event is, is a profound interaction with the divine and the human that results in this incredible potential of humanity to proclaim the divine.

Living Pentecost today

Our Sunday Visitor: How do you think that embracing this celebration of Pentecost in art will contribute to the broader spiritual life of Catholics?

“The Pentecost” from the Doña María de Aragón Altarpiece by Doménikos Theotokópoulos (“El Greco”) Public domain

Elizabeth Lev: I’m thinking at this exact moment at the Pantheon in Rome, where we have on Pentecost Sunday the dropping of the red rose petals from the oculus. And there’s this pagan building that managed to survive 1,800 years because in 600, its excellence as a structure convinced the Christians to turn it into a church. And then the Christians christianized it. It’s like that Restout, again. You have this very impressive earthly structure, but this incredibly exciting thing that happens, this beauty of the rose petals to simulate those tongues of flame, the adventure, the excitement and all the people that go in there, indeed not because they’re really interested in Pentecost Mass, because they’re interested in the Instagram moment of the red rose petals or they’re just curious or they want to go say they did it or whatever it is, but it calls people to go there. Now, once you put people in the room with the Holy Spirit, there’s no telling what’s going to happen. The Holy Spirit’s going to do — Spirit’s going to Spirit. And so, I think it’s already, it would be a better way for us to think in the modern era, this is our job, nothing has changed from that moment, nothing is different from — God doesn’t say, “No, just be in your room and we’re good. Just keep it to yourself and, you, me, it’s just on the DL, it’s good.” That’s not the job description at all. And so I think, as we find ways to proclaim an attractive, joyful way this sense of what the modern age loves to call “empowerment,” that we are given the sense of freedom, the sense of joy, I think the more that we can celebrate this, the more we have a chance of “thy Kingdom come,” making the world what God wants it to be.

Our Sunday Visitor Staff

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