Friday, June 3, 2011

Iconography of the Resurrection –- The Ascension

From Breviare de Martin d'Aragon
Spanish, 1398-1430
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Rothschild 2529, fol. 233v
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
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.”
Acts 1:8-11

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
Jesus striding into the sky – As early as the fourth century we find a relief of Jesus ascending to heaven by striding up a mountain into a cloud. Over time the mountain disappeared, but the striding motion remained and the image transformed into the motif of Christ striding on the clouds, with His hands “piercing” the upper frame of the picture, as He enters into heaven.

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.

Italian, 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.

Rabula Gospels
Syrian, 6th century
Florence, Laurentian Library

Andrea Mantegna
Italian, 1460-1464
Florence, Uffizi Gallery

An interesting variation can be seen very clearly in a painting by Mantegna, in which the mandorla is formed by glowing cherubs.

Jesus being lifted on a cloud – This also has some affinity with classical sources, but developed over the centuries, from Christ standing on a cloud, as in the early 11th-century Bamberg Apocalypse

Bamberg Apocalypse
German, 1000-1020
Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek

Italian, 1579-1581
Venice, Scuola di San Rocco

to Christ surrounded by clouds as he “flies” upward as, for example, by Tintoretto.

It was this motif that became beloved of Baroque and later artists. Examples include Rembrandt (1636) and the American-born British painter, Benjamin West, from 1805.
Dutch, 1636
Munich, Alte Pinacothek

Benjamin West
Amerian, 1805
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
Aberdeen, University
Bible Historiale of Peter Comestor
1372, Den Haag, Museum
Meermano Westreenianum
Medieval examples include The St. Albans’ Psalter, an English work from the first half of the 12th century and a French work of the late 14th century, the Bible Historiale of Peter Comestor.

Flemish, ca. 1490
Paris, Musee du Louvre
It appears in the northern Renaissance in the right hand panel of the “Resurrection Triptych” by Hans Memling (painted c. 1490 and now in the Louvre)

Hans Suess von Kulmbach
German, 1513
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

and in the 1513 work of the German, Hans Suess von Kulmbach, now in the Metropolitan Museum.

But, perhaps the most unusual image of the Ascension ever created dates from the last half of the 20th century. It gives us an “Apostles’ eye view” of the event. Created by Salvador Dali in 1958, it is now in a private collection.
Salvador Dali
Spanish, 1958
San Diego, Museum of Art
As he did with other Biblical subjects, Dali once again gives us a unique, imaginative and, indeed, astonishing view. Obviously derived from the “disappearing feet” iconographic type, we are placed in the position of one of the Apostles, standing on the mountain, looking up and watching the feet of Jesus from below as He rises up into a golden circle among the clouds, as an angel watches.