Friday, June 3, 2011

Iconography of the Ascension, Part I of IV -- Striding into the Sky

Ivory Plaque with the Three Women at the Tomb
and the Ascension
Roman, c. 400
Munich, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum

“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:  Jesus Striding into the Sky (covered in this essay), Jesus Lifted to Heaven in a Mandorla or on a Cloud (see here), The Disappearing Feet of Jesus (see here) and Jesus Rising Directly to Heaven (see here).

As early as the end of the fourth century we find an ivory relief of Jesus ascending to heaven by striding up a mountain into a cloud (see image above). Over time the mountain disappeared, but the striding motion remained and the image transformed into the motif of Christ striding on the clouds as He enters into heaven, welcomed by the hand of God the Father reaching out of the cloud.

This image showed very little development over time, save for the addition of angels and witnesses.

From the Drogo Sacramentary
French (Metz), c. 850
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9428, fol. 71v

From the Sacramentary of St. Gereonis
German (Cologne), 10th-11th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 817, fol. 72r

From a Gospel Book
French (Meuse Region), c. 974-1050
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 592, fol. 157v

Ivory Plaque with the Ascension
French, c. 1160-1170
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

from a Sacramentary
German (Mainz or Fulda), 1025-1040
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS. Ludwig V2, Fol. 20

Sometimes, as in the image from the Getty Museum above, instead of the hand of God the Father reaching out of the cloud, Jesus' hand “pierces” the upper frame of the picture,

Giotto, Ascension
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Scrovegni/Arena Chapel

This motif seems to have ended with the great work by Giotto.  At least, I have not yet found any examples of it that are later in date.

For the other Ascension iconographic motifs see:

  • Jesus Lifted in a Mandorla or on a Cloud (here)
  • The Disappearing Feet of Jesus (here)
  • The Direct Approach (here)

© M. Duffy, 2011, revised 2017

Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.