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Art for Meditation - October 2018

El Greco

Domenico Theotocopoulos, known as El Greco (Candia, 1540 – Toledo, 1614), Pentecost, 1605-10, 275 x 127 cm, oil on canvas, Madrid, Museo del Prado


The large canvas by El Greco, which develops vertically like its figures, presents two focal points on which the scene is built. In the top, in the place where the Apostles are gathered with Mary and the women, the darkness is torn and the dove, symbol of the Spirit that breaks in and emanates its strength, appears in the form of flames on the characters that crowd the lower part of the painting. Let us count them: Mary is at the centre, five are on her right and four on her left; another three are on the sides of the intermediate ground, and finally two - the closest to us onlookers – are in the foreground with their backs to us. There are fifteen of them, as the book of Acts tells us (cf. 1:14).

Everything in this part of the scene emphasises the ascent, almost as if to achieve as soon as possible the encounter between the fire of the Spirit that proceeds from above and the heads of the characters. The two characters from behind in the foreground, almost turning back and seeming to come out of the canvas, have actually the function of pushing the scene upwards. Moreover, given its large size, this Pentecost had to be an altarpiece; therefore its vision - for us spectators - had to be from bottom to top. So we have to imagine our gaze rising, meeting the two apostles from behind, bouncing off their shoulders and arriving at Mary's bright robe, then going over all the other figures around and finally, reversely following the flames that are resting on them, contemplating the glimpse of heaven from which the dove, the Holy Spirit, overlooks.

The Spirit that is poured out on the apostles and Mary descends, our gaze rises, and the encounter of these two movements is realised in the elongated figures of the disciples, in the faces turned to welcome the great gift that Jesus had promised and that now, after the Resurrection, becomes the certainty of a beneficial and perennial presence.

Come, Holy Spirit, send us a ray of your light from heaven.


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