Faith through Art: Painting celebrates ‘birthday of the church’

By Sandra Martin

“And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them” (Acts 2:2-4).
The painting by Emil Nolde (1867-1956) of the Pentecost –– the gathering of the disciples in which the Holy Spirit descended upon them in such a dramatic fashion –– is a fitting representation of this defining moment in the history of the church. Indeed, the feast of Pentecost (from the Greek meaning “50th,” the 50th and final day of the Easter season) is often described as the “birthday of the Church” and in this German artist’s painting one can even see the birthday candles, i.e., the tongues of fire resting on the heads of the followers of Jesus. 
As fire and wind, two primary symbols of the Holy Spirit, are visited upon them, the disciples are granted the ability to hear each other speaking in tongues: “And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim ... At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language” (Acts 2:4,6). Thus, because the diverse assembly was able to hear the very same Gospel, the ancient feast of Pentecost is also proclaimed as a celebration of Christian unity.
In this 1909 painting we see the disciples of Jesus gathered together as the Holy Spirit descends upon them. Peter, right of center with a red/orange beard and hands folded in prayer, experiences this life-changing gift with an expression of awe and divine submission. At the same time, there is tenderness in the facial expression of the disciple to Peter’s right, as his hand grips Peter’s shoulder in support, comfort and Christian fellowship. While we do not necessarily see the effects of the ‘driving wind’ of the Spirit in the atmosphere of the painting, as the flames above the disciples heads are still and do not flicker, we are able to witness the emotional reaction on the faces of the disciples. In this time of holy chaos, the man in the turquoise garment on the left reaches out to the follower on the right, who seems overwhelmed, and whose face betrays bewilderment and fear. The disciple on the left grasps his hand in an expression of compassion and support. 
Nolde’s painting, almost primitive in its bold brush strokes and stylized faces, is enlivened with color, passion and light as it portrays the event in which the Holy Spirit empowers the Apostles: “But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1:8). The visages of the apostles express a wide range of emotions reflective of the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit. Indeed the Pentecost reading from Acts uses words such as confused, amazement and astounded.
To visually convey these strong emotions, the artist uses a vivid and modern palate –– we see purple, turquoise and red/orange, as well as cerulean blue. The yellow/gold of the disciples’ faces reflects the inner state of their souls, ablaze with the Holy Spirit. We see the bright green eyes of Peter, gazing directly ahead, expressing the awe and wonder of this transfiguring experience, as well as his unquestioning and faithful openness to the Spirit. Purple, rather than the more traditional red, orange or gold, tongues of fire rest on the heads of the apostles. Peter’s mouth is slightly open, again expressing his astonishment.
This painting is no Renaissance depiction, but rather an expression of a deep spirituality, and a personal response to a powerful event in the history of the early church, an unconventional and vigorous interpretation of a profound biblical story. The disciples appear as regular men, and indeed are rustic in appearance –– no halos here, no smooth and ecstatic countenances. Rather than a broad scene of the entire experience, this painting is an original and modern retelling of a traditional subject. Nolde gathers the disciples tightly within the frame of the painting, focusing primarily on their heads and upper bodies, their facial expressions,and hand gestures. 
“Filled with the Holy Spirit, they would now understand ‘all the truth’: that the death of Jesus was not his defeat, but rather the ultimate expression of God’s love, a love that, in the Resurrection, conquers death and exalts Jesus as the Living One, the Lord, the Redeemer of mankind, of history and of the world,” Pope Francis said in his 2015 Pentecost homily. In this painting, we see the transformed disciples, now free from the fear of the aftermath of the Crucifixion, inspired (meaning literally to “breathe in” or “breathe life into”) to go out and spread “all the truth” –– the Good News of Jesus Christ.