Pentecost: Joseph Mildorfer

Pentecost’ by Joseph Ignaz Mildorfer (1719–1775) from the 1750s. This was an altarpiece for the Church of the Holy Spirit in Sopron, now in the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest.

Born into a Tyrolese painter family, he moved while still young to Vienna, where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, later becoming professor there in 1751. He received many commissions as a fresco and altarpiece painter, both in Austria and neighbouring countries in the Empire.

He may be less well known than he deserves, for he was clearly a victim of changing tastes in church decoration. Many of his commissions are now lost, removed, destroyed or covered over by later commissions, and can only be surmised from surviving preliminary sketches and historical records.

Trained in Late Baroque, he developed a style well suited to the looser and more flowing forms of Rococo. This one, like other biblical scenes shows fine dramatic movement particularly on the vertical – the eye is led naturally up into the busy celestial world.

His animated style and the liveliness of his compositions, seem to have come from previous commissions for battle scenes. There is much of that ferocious energy here. Gone is the calm coherence of the infant church, as the disciples sit quietly around Christ’s Mother, that we are familiar with in earlier artists. Mary remains at the centre, but the group of men and women have almost been torn apart by the violence of the spiritual experience.

The tongues of fire are neither calm nor discreet, but actively searching out the individuals who are to be enthused. There is a sense of fear as well as excitement. Certainly a memorable shared experience. It is easy to imagine that crowds would have gathered when they heard the sound, but less easy to imagine how Peter and the Eleven preached to them so soon after this terrifying scene.

John Turnbull