|Jean Colombe, Ascension|
from the Hours of Anne of France
French (Bourges), 1470-1480
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M677, fol. 202v
We have looked previously at four different motifs for the depiction of the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven described at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles:
“When they had gathered together they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority.
But 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 1:6-11, Excerpt from the First Reading for the feast of the Ascension of the Lord
So far we have looked at the following motifs which artists have used to depict this event:
- · Jesus Striding into Heaven (here)
- · Jesus Lifted in a Mandorla or on a Cloud (here)
- · The Disappearing Feet of Jesus (here)
|Ivory Plaque with the Ascension|
German (Rhineland), c. 1050
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection
However, alongside these popular motifs there has also existed another one, that of the Direct Ascension, in which Jesus ascends without any kind of visual aid, though occasionally surrounded by an aura. This alternate expression has its roots in the middle ages, seems to had its greatest popularity during the fifteenth century and then disappeared until later in the nineteenth century.
The earliest image of this form that I have so far seen is an ivory plaque from the Metropolitan Museum of Arts’ medieval branch, the Cloisters. It dates from the mid-eleventh century in Germany and has its roots in the classical image of Jesus Striding into Heaven. It has strong affinities with the fourth-century Roman ivory image that seems to be the first recorded Ascension image. However, while it has such classical references as the two small figures of Ocean and Earth that sit at the bottom of the plaque, it is not as finely carved. Nonetheless, its classical descent is clear.
from a Psalter
English (Salisbury), 1350-1375
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 765, fol. 19
Not so clear is the impulse behind the mid-fourteenth-century English illumination that shows the event taking place indoors, or at least within or behind some elaborate Gothic architectural framework. At first glance the image resembles a scene of Pentecost, with the Apostles gathered around Mary and gazing upward. However, on closer examination, one sees that the figure of Jesus is poised above them, glimpsed through the structure, which reveals only His feet, torso and hands. His head is shown as popping out of the top of the structure, which is revealed to be octagonal at the top. There may be here a remote reflection of the insular style of such early manuscripts as the Book of Kells where body parts are similarly entwined with decorative elements.
Once we arrive at the Renaissance period the scene becomes increasingly more naturalistic and clear. Christ rises straight up from the ground in most cases, usually in a what looks like a standing position. One might say that this motif is related to the "Disappearing Feet" type, but that instead of seeing just the feet of Jesus disappearing into heaven, we are seeing the full figure of Jesus in the moments just before His entry there.
|Limbourg Brothers, Ascension|
fromt he Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
Chantilly, Musée Condé
MS 65, fol. 184r
In some images, however, He may “fly” with the force of the flight indicated by the flutter of draperies, or by His posture. However, in all cases He does this without a mandorla frame or clouds to assist or contain Him.
|Michelino de' Molinari da Bosozzo, Ascension|
from a Prayer Book
Italian (Milan), 1425-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M944, fol. 35v
|Luca della Robbia, Ascension|
Master of the Life of the Virgin, Ascension
Philadelphia, Museum of Art
Altarpiece from Thuison-les-Abbeville
French, c. 1490-1500
Chicago, Art Institute
Il Garofalo, Ascension
Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Art Antica
A significant newly cosmic tone was introduced in a painting by the Cremonese, Antonio Campi, in a painting for the private chapel of Cardinal (later Saint) Charles Borromeo in 1569. The painting is titled The Mysteries of the Passion and shows all the events of the Passion and Resurrection, up to the Ascension in one canvas. Dominating the far background is the amazing eruption of the Ascension, in which heaven opens in a great cone of golden light as the Apostles watch Jesus ascend to heaven, accompanied by flights of angels.
|Antonio Campi, Ascension (Detail from Mysteries of the Passion)|
Paris, Musée du Louvre
By the late nineteenth century this must have seemed to artists to be the best possible form for the subject, as a cluster of works by painters and stained glass designers showing Jesus ascending amid light toward heaven suggest.
|James Tissot, Ascension|
New York, Brooklyn Museum
|John La Farge, Ascension|
Design for a Stained Glass Window
American, c. 1886
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
|Louis Comfort Tiffany, Ascension|
Stained Glass Window
American, ca. 1900
Montclair (NJ), Union Congregational Chruch
© M. Duffy, 2017 and 2018