This is the festal icon of Holy Pentecost. This particular version is Russian, likely painted in the 16th Century for the Cathedral of St. Sophia in the city of Novgorod. It might not be what you expected to see for an image of this feastday.
Here is shown the birthday of the Church, but not those dramatic moments of rushing wind, tongues of fire, and the proclaimingof the Word in every language to amazed crowds, that are part of the Scriptural story of this wonderful day.
Instead, twelve figures are shown. They sit together, serene, quiet and peaceful. The composition, the gestures, and even the colors give a sense of unity and harmony. The Holy Spirit is depicted as a dark circular shape that represents the mystery of God. Twelve rays of light emanate down from the circle, looking almost like water from a fountain, pointing down towards the twelve. The men are quiet, still. Their mouths are closed. They are listening rather than speaking, listening to the promptings of the Spirit.
The group, which includes the four evangelists as well as St. Paul, surrounds an archway filled with darkness. A tomb perhaps? A king emerges. His name is Cosmos, and he represents the entire world, in the way that a king represents and stands for his people. He holds a cloth in his hands, with 12 objects on it. He has come out of the darkness into the light to accept a gift of 12 scrolls of the Gospels, the Good News, on behalf of all nations. As the symbolic representative of all of us, he accepts the Word of the Lord and comes from death into life.
There are variations on this icon. After the 17th Century, many Pentecost icons show our Blessed Mother seated at the top center. She is placed there because she is the symbol of the Church.
In many other icons, especially the earlier ones, that center place is empty. The symbolism is that the space is not simply vacant but the place reserved for Jesus, as the invisible head of the Church. It is held there for Him in the image, waiting for His Second Coming.
What I like in this particular icon is that it isn’t just a waiting space. The two apostles–St. Peter on the left and St. Paul on the right–face each other. The symmetry of the space between them is in the shape of a chalice. Above, the circle that stands for the Mystery of God, also resembles the Host. The sacrament of the bread and wine, the Eucharist, is visually proclaimed as the center of our faith, as God’s Presence in the Church.