From Breviare de Martin d'Aragon
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Rothschild 2529, fol. 233v
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.”
When he had said this, as they were looking on,
he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.
While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going,
suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.
They said, “Men of Galilee,
why are you standing there looking at the sky?
This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven
will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”
The quotation above is from the second part of the first reading for the Mass of the Ascension and dates from the last decades of the first century (80-90 AD). The feast of the Ascension is celebrated in the United States either on the traditional Thursday or on the following Sunday, according to the decision of the Bishops’ Conference.
The description of the group of disciples assembled on the mountain, the description of Jesus being “lifted up”, of the cloud that “took him from their sight” and of the two “men dressed in white garments” with their message of the future is among the most immediate in the New Testament. We can feel almost as though we are there with them. But the manner in which this moment can be captured in visual form has not been uniform.
There are several visual traditions, or iconographic types, for the Ascension scene, even from early times. They are:
|Resurrection and Ascension|
Roman Early Christian, 4th century
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsmuseum
German (Mainz or Fulda), ca. 1025-1040
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
It is seen thus in an Ottonian Sacramentary, produced in Mainz or Fulda in Germany, dating from the 11th century
and in the fresco by Giotto in the Arena/Scrovegni Chapel in Padua in 1300-1305.
Arena Chapel, Padua
Jesus being lifted in a mandorla – This derives from Roman images of the apotheosis of the deceased being transported to heaven by flying geniuses or on the wings of eagles. Two well-known examples are a first century cameo of Caesar Claudius Germanicus and the monument containing the relief of the Apotheosis of Antoninus Pius and Faustina from about 161 AD.
|Apotheosis of Caesar Claudium Germanicus|
Roman, 1st century AD
Paris, Musee du Louvre
|Apotheosis of Antoninus Pius and Faustina|
Roman, ca. 161 AD
Vatican City, Vatican Museums
It appears in Christian art as early as the 6th century Rabula Gospels, produced in Syria. Here the geniuses have been transformed into angels.
Munich, Alte Pinacothek
Denver, Berg Collection
Jesus’ feet disappearing into heaven – This is my favorite image of the Ascension. There is something a bit whimsical about seeing only the feet of Jesus protruding from clouds. This image appears to develop during the middle ages.
|St. Albans Psalter|
|Bible Historiale of Peter Comestor|
1372, Den Haag, Museum
Flemish, ca. 1490
Paris, Musee du Louvre
|Hans Suess von Kulmbach|
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
and in the 1513 work of the German, Hans Suess von Kulmbach, now in the Metropolitan Museum.