Just before Christ ascended to heaven, he promised his apostles that after he was gone, he would empower them with the Holy Spirit. They were to wait in Jerusalem for this to happen (Acts 1:1-4). This event took place ten days later, on the feast day of Pentecost. The community were all gathered together in the Upper Room of a house. They felt a strong wind and then the Holy Spirit descended on each of them in the form of fiery flames, empowering them to speak in foreign languages.
Pope St John Paul II explained that “the Holy Spirit was already at work in the world before Christ was glorified. Yet on the day of Pentecost, he came down upon the disciples to remain with them for ever. On that day the Church was publicly revealed to the multitude, and the Gospel began to spread among the nations by means of preaching.” For this reason, he referred to the event as the “birth of the Church”. (Dominum et Vivificantem, n. 25)
This dramatic image of the Descent of the Holy Spirit is found within the modern church of St Aloysius, Somers Town. This life-size window was designed by John Lawson, the chief artist of the Goddard & Gibbs Studio, and installed in 1992. It’s one of a series of five ground-level windows picturing the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary.
The colourful scene shows the Virgin Mary – who was also present at Pentecost – surrounded by the twelve apostles. The Holy Spirit is seen alighting on each of them in the form of a fiery flame. St John the Apostle is shown in yellow, on the Virgin’s right, while St Peter (with the balding head) is on her left. The dove, another biblical symbol of the Holy Spirit, is shown hovering over the group.
Within Catholic tradition, the Descent of the Holy Spirit is the Third ‘Glorious Mystery’ of the Rosary, a common devotion to the Virgin Mary. This led to the practice, followed here, of picturing the Virgin as the main figure within artistic scenes of the episode. Dressed in her traditional blue and hands raised in prayer, her gaze is on the viewer, as if to communicate her inner calm and confidence in God.
See the full image:
John Lawson of Goddard and Gibbs / The Descent of the Holy Spirit / Stained glass / 1992
Where to find this work of art
St Aloysius, Somers Town
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