The Descent of the Holy Spirit is recounted in Acts 2; 1-4. The icon shows the twelve apostles and tongues of fire descending on their heads, symbolising Divine inspiration, which emanates from the divine realm indicated by the rim of the circle at the top of the icon. The Apostles sit in an orderly row conversing with each other as they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The semi-circular composition mirrors the semi-circular arrangement of the apostles showing that they were ‘all in one place’ and ‘could speak with other tongues’. The synthronon is the semi-circular structure behind the altar in an Orthodox church and the ascent to the synthronon symbolises Christ’s glory and sacrifice.1
In the lower part of the icon, is a figure, King Kosmos who represents the fallen world. He sits ‘in darkness and the shadow of death’ (Luke 1:79). Both his aged state and the dark background indicate the degraded state of the world while the teaching of the Apostles, whose writings are the scrolls collected in the white cloth Kosmos holds, signify redemption. (Detail 2.)
Vladimir Lossky wrote that the unity of the church was brought into being by the Pentecost. For him, the twelve apostles represent the coming together of the church, and the empty space in the central arch which represents the invisible head of the church, Christ (Detail. 1).2 Icons of the Pentecost do not just recount a past event; they also celebrate the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit. They are displayed in the Feasts row of the iconostasis and, during the Feast of Pentecost, on a lectern in front of the iconostasis for veneration.
The main difference between Russian and Greek icons of the Pentecost is that Russian ones tend to depict the Theotokos on the throne, a theme that emerged in the 17th or 18th century in Ukraine but never caught on in more southern Orthodox lands. The theologian Sergei Bulgakov justified images with the Theotokos as the more ‘complete’ image of the Pentecost. 3
The composition of our icon follows the established form exemplified by the well known icon by Theophanes the Cretan on Mount Athos 1535 (fig. 1). The use of bright colours, especially reds and blues and the dark under-painting of the faces are typical of Macedonia or Serbia or, even more likely, Bulgaria during the Ottoman period.