In Your Midst

Image of the Divine

April 2008

Icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit

Icon of Pentecost, Joan Brand-LandkamerThe traditional icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit is full of hidden meanings.  It’s not a representation of the historic event of Pentecost, but rather an invitation to meditate on the mystery of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

         At the top of the icon we see the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, with twelve rays pointing down towards the twelve apostles.  We see the twelve seated in a semicircle—symbolizing the unity of the Church; over the head of each is suspended a “tongue as of fire.”  The upper room where they are gathered (in a metaphysical leap only possible in an icon!) is depicted as a backdrop, and perspective is distorted in that the figures in the foreground are smaller than those in the background.   The importance of the apostles seated at the top of the circle is thus emphasized—St. Peter is on the left and St Paul (another metaphysical leap!) is on the right.  In this icon we can also find St. Mark (fourth down on the right) and St. Luke (third down on the left).  Neither Paul, Mark, nor Luke were present on the day of Pentecost.

         There is a wonderful variety to their expressions, costumes, and gestures, and yet a beautiful order and symmetry to the arrangement of their figures, suggestive of the unity that is the gift of the Spirit.
At the bottom of the icon is a crowned figure labeled “The World.”  This figure is said to represent all people, living in darkness and sin (represented by the darkness behind him).  In his hands he holds a cloth containing scrolls representing the teachings of the Apostles, who have carried the message of the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

         And, of course, the Cathedral’s icon, created by iconographer Joan Brand-Landkamer, contains some details that don’t figure in any other!  Look hard at the apostles and you’ll find portraits of Father Ryan, James Savage, and Archbishop Murphy.

         “When the Most High came down and confounded tongues of men at Babel, he divided the nations. When he dispensed the tongues of fire, He called all to unity, and with one voice we glorify the Most Holy Spirit.” (Prayer from the Greek Orthodox liturgy of Pentecost)


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