Sunday, April 21, 2019

Acts 5.27-32: As Bird is My Witness

The disciples stand before the high council (Acts 5:27-32). Council members remind the disciples that they were instructed not to each in Jesus' name. "But we have to!" they claim. They then rehearse Jesus' life story: his death, his resurrection, his position at the right hand of God. We have to, they say, because we were witnesses to all those things. We were witnesses...and so was the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:32).

The Holy Spirit was a witness to the Crucifixion and the resurrection? That's a detail that may not be universally - at least universally artistically - acknowledged. A small, unscientific survey reveals that there are times and ways when a dove - arguably the most common symbol for the Holy Spirit - is shown in images of Christ on the cross. But the occurrence is far from the majority of times.
(Left) Master of the Prayerbooks of c. 1500. Royal 16F II, Fol. 89. London: British Library.  (Right) Masaccio. The Holy Trinity. 1425. Fresco. Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy. 
In the manuscript illumination (above left) the dove is flying in carrying an ampoule. An ampoule is a glass vial that can contain a substance - perhaps a liquid, maybe some kind of solid. The Holy Ampoule is a glass vial that held the anointing oil used at the coronation of French kings. In some medieval French images the Holy Spirit appears in scenes of baptism, bringing in an ampoule filled with oil to anoint the one being baptized. In this illumination, the dove is at the top center of the composition, hovering over the walled city of Paris (do you see Notre Dame?) and a scene of Christ on a cross. Though identified as the Crucifixion, this also has the feel of travelers stopping at a roadside shrine that includes a crucifix. Shrine or crucifixion, this is one example where a symbol of the Holy Spirit is present.

The Masaccio work (above right) is a theological diagram rather than a narrative illustration, so it does include all three persons of the Trinity, including a dove representing the Holy Spirit. The fresco, though, may not be an illustration of the apostles' claim before the High Council. And the other episodes - including the resurrection - seem to have even fewer evidences of the Holy Spirit.

Were Peter and the apostles still so taken up with Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit
(only three chapters before this text) that they needed to make sure the Holy Spirit was highlighted? Why haven't artists picked up on that detail and included pictorial evidence of the Holy Spirit in their images of the crucifixion and the resurrection? Why might this be an important point to remember about the crucifixion and the resurrection?

See how doves and disciples come together in a different work on this week's Art&Faith Matters on Facebook. 
We are as likely (possibly more likely) to see a pelican in crucifixion paintings than to see doves. For an example, see this 2018 post on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

For thoughts on John 20:19-31 - Thomas' post-Easter story, click here, here, or here.

No comments:

Post a Comment