What is Pentecost and how is it depicted in art? Pentecost (UK: Whitsunday; NL: Pinksteren) is a Christian holy day, that must be seen in connection with Easter and the Ascension of Christ. It’s celebrated 50 days after Easter Sunday, and 10 days after Ascension Day. The word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek word “Πεντηκοστή” and simply means “fiftieth”. What happened is the following: Easter is the moment of the crucifixion and resurrection; at Ascension Day the physical body of Christ goes up to heaven and with Pentecost the spirit of Christ comes back to earth in the form of the Holy Ghost. And the Holy Ghosts descend upon the Apostles, the disciples of Christ, so that they can start spreading His word around the world.
This can be depicted with great drama. Look at El Greco’s painting from c. 1600. The Apostles and Maria are being covered by light and flames coming down from above, and the Holy Ghost is descending in its classic form of a white dove. Their hands up in wonder, and their faces with big glorious admiration. Drama galore! Small mundane detail: the second apostle from the right in the top row has been given the portrait of El Greco himself, and he is the only one looking at us viewers.
If I may demystify this moment a bit, than let’s look at the fresco by Giotto from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, painted roughly 300 years before the El Greco painting. It’s the Apostles, sitting together in a meeting session. It’s a few weeks after the moment Christ left them, and can it be that they are going from a mourning phase into a phase of accepting what happened? They are discussing how to move forward and they are deciding to spread the good word of Christ around the world. They seem to have received a sparkle of hope; they are seeing now light in darkness. Giotto depicted this moment as rays of light (or fire) coming from above and spreading over the Apostles. Compare this to the El Greco painting where this abstract concept of seeing light in darkness has been turned into a visual concrete drama with rays of light, the dove and flames descending upon the Apostles.
And to put Ascension and Pentecost next to each other, please look at these 17th Century Dutch prints: Ascension as the physical movement of Christ up to heaven and Pentecost as the spiritual movement of the Holy Ghost down from heaven.