Pentecost is one of the most important feast days in the liturgical year. It is the day where, 50 days after Easter and 10 days after Jesus’ ascension, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Twelve Apostles and the Virgin Mary, appearing as tongues of fire above their heads.
According to Acts of the Apostles, “They were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” (Acts 2:4).
One can imagine how amazing, and certainly surprising, it would be to be in a room when suddenly, small flames appear near people’s foreheads and they are able to speak in different languages. It must have, indeed, been a dramatic moment.
One of the most interesting paintings depicting this event is the one painted by French artist Jean Restout II in 1732. Presently housed in the Louvre, Restout’s portrayal of Pentecost was originally painted for the Abbey of Saint-Denis, outside of Paris.
This painting is immediately striking compared to other depictions of Pentecost because of the highly dramatic, baroque imagery that Restout uses. Here, the apostles and Mary are depicted in a large, Roman-style courtyard while the Holy Spirit descends through the cloudy sky to reach them below. Here, the Holy Spirit is depicted as the light shining through the darkness, and we can clearly see Jesus’ followers receiving the tongues of fire above their foreheads.
Originally, the painting was even larger, with a dove, the traditional symbol of the Holy Spirit, being depicted at the very top of the painting. Light was also shown radiating from the dove onto the disciples.
Restout was also careful to show the emotions on the faces of his subjects. Naturally, the painting focuses on the Virgin Mary, who is depicted in the center. Her reaction contrasts with the rest of those depicted, as she is shown being completely calm, full of grace. The others, on the other hand, are shocked, almost bewildered by what they are experiencing. They are taken aback by the awe of all of it.
This is not so with Mary. It was she who knew the true nature of her son from the beginning. She never questioned him, as the others had. Thus, she is depicted as not being the least bit surprised by the events surrounding her. The disciples, while faithful servants of Christ, had experienced moments of doubt in the past. Here, and with the Resurrection beforehand, Jesus’ nature was further confirmed to them, and they would soon go out and spread his message to the masses, without fear and doubt in their minds.
Today, Restout’s painting remains fairly unique among Pentecost depictions. While there are many that offer simple imagery, Restout instead opts for a highly dramatic baroque painting, which I believe truly captures the power, awe, and raw emotion of the event through the depictions of the characters, all followers and believers in Jesus Christ.
Let us remember that this is an event where God once again showed his true glory to the world. By looking at and reflecting on paintings like these, we can come to truly understand the glory of God.