Giotto on Pentecost

May 30th 2020

Giotto and Workshop, about 1267 or 1276; died 1337 Pentecost probably about 1310-18 Egg tempera on poplar, 45.5 x 44 cm Bequeathed by Geraldine Emily Coningham in memory of her husband, Major Henry Coningham, and of Mrs Coningham of Brighton, 1942 NG5360

This little painting from London’s National Gallery (45.5cm X 44cm) is full of surprises.  Pentecost is described in the Acts of the Apostles.  Chapter 1 of Acts says that after the Ascension, the Apostles went back to the upper room in Jerusalem. It names the eleven and refers to the betrayal and death of Judas. As a result Matthias is selected to replace him.  However, according to Acts there were others with them: “All these devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers“ (Acts1:14).   Acts 2 describes what happened on Pentecost and begins,  “When the day of Pentecost came around, they were all together in one place”.  The word “they” leaves room for asking were the people mentioned as being with the Apostles on their return to the upper room also there when the Spirit came?  Before and indeed after Giotto Mary is shown with the Apostles at Pentecost and the tongue of fire is also above her head.  But Giotto only shows the Apostles.  This is true also of his slightly earlier depiction of the same scene in the fresco cycle of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.   

“Pentecost from the Scrovegni Chapelm Padua, Giotto c.1504-5

This is one reason why I think he may have been following not Luke’s Acts but “The Golden Legend” which was composed by Jacobus da Varagine between1259 and 1266.  This was a compendium structured around liturgical feast days.  It was very widely read and artists used it as their main narrative source.   It has quite a full treatment of the Holy Spirit and, with respect to Pentecost, asks and then answers a number of very specific questions.  How did the Spirit come?  Well Varagine’s answer is the Spirit came with the sound of a mighty wind and fire in tongues of flame.  But “The Golden Legend” is quite clear that the Spirit doesn’t come as a dove at Pentecost.  Upon whom did the Spirit descend at Pentecost?  The Golden Legend says it was just the Apostles.  The text lays great emphasis on the significance of fire and flame for their future ministry of preaching and witnessing to Christ.   It also says that when the Spirit came they were seated which was a sign of their humility.  Both this scene of Pentecost and the one in Padua are in accord with “The Golden Legend”.   

Luke says that they were all in one place.  He doesn’t doesn’t specify where. However, it is assumed that it was the same room where they had eaten the Last Supper and to which they had returned after the Ascension.   “The Golden Legend” says it was the Cenacle, which was the location of the Last Supper.  But in both works Giotto shows Pentecost happening in a different room.  

In the Scrovegni Chapel fresco the Apostles are seated on benches in a kind of loggia with gothic arches. It like contemporary architecture which must be deliberate.  As you can see from the image, within the loggia the circle of golden haloes catch the light. Some writers think it suggests the Church.  To my eye it is like a lantern or lamp lit shine before the nations of the earth.  The rays coming down upon the apostles are also visible. 

In the London panel there is a feeble looking dove in the centre sending down rather faint rays. In fact cleaning and analysis has shown that this dove and these rays were added later on.  Indeed, originally, there just eleven Apostles. Another one was added not long after its completion on the far left. He is a bit smaller but has been painted over the adjacent apostle’s halo.  However, the most significant discovery is that originally there were strong rays descending on each apostle. There were formed in gilded thin which was easier to apply but was quite expensive.  The illustration below shows them as they would originally have been seen.  They would have dominated the scene.  

This image is taken from the National Gallery Technical Bulletin

It is known that this panel was the last in a series of panels which were all cut from the same plank of wood.  X-rays show the grain of the wood continuing as you move from one panel to another. There are seven in all.   These are “The Nativity and Epiphany” (New York), “The Presentation” (Boston), “The Last Supper” (Munich), “The Crucifixion” (Muinch), “The Descent into Limbo” (Munich) and “Pentecost” (London).  On the back of each panel there were batons so that they could be held together in a row. Together the set would have been just over 3m long.  Such a large width makes it very unlikely that these formed a predella. Rather it is thought that they formed a dossal,  which was a type of altarpiece not uncommon in places like Rimini, where Giotto had worked in this period.   The crucifixion panel has the donors and St Francis kneeling at the foot of the cross.  This means that the altar for which these were panels were made was in a Franciscan Church.  As in the Scovegni Chapel frescoes,  the room in which the disciples are seated at Pentecost differs from the room used for the Last Supper.  This change of location would not have been without significance.  In the Last Supper scene, the Apostles fill an enclosed space.  There is no door visible because it is about them being together ate table with Jesus.  in his scene of Pentecost, Giotto suggests a room that is elevated, which suggests the upper room but it also allows him to suggest the street below unto which the Apostles will emerge speaking in the language “of every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5).  This room has windows and doors which are shut. The two figures listening outside brilliantly evoke the sound of the mighty wind and also invite us to listen.  The taller figure on the left looks to me like a prophet.  He is pondering the scene as he rubs his beard. Perhaps he represent the prophets of the Old Testament, all of whom were inspired by the Holy Spirit.   

The Seven panels as a dossal

The viewer would have stood or knelt before this altarpiece for Mass. It would have been lit by candles.  The viewer’s eye would have moved from the haloes of the Christ child, Mary and Joseph, to next scene and the scene after, with haloes catching the light like “sparks running through stubble” and would have come to this final scene where these gleaming rays of golden light fill the little room,  as it filled the hearts of the Apostles.   And surely such an image would have linger in the mind as he or she went out from the chapel unto the streets of daily life.  

Giotto on Pentecost

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