Friday, May 5, 2017

Iconography of the Ascension, Part II of IV -- Jesus Lifted in a Mandorla or on a Cloud

The Ascension
Page from a Lectionary
French, c.1100
Paris, Musée de Cluny, Musée national du Moyen Age

"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

We have already seen the early motif for the Ascension, in which Jesus strides up the mountain and into heaven (access here).  Now we will look at two other motifs, one of which became to predominant image of the Ascension, up to our own day.

Jesus Being Lifted in a Mandorla 

This motif 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, Musée du Louvre

Apotheosis of Antoninus Pius and Faustina
Roman, c. 161 AD
Vatican City, Vatican Museums

It also appears in early Christian funereal art, such as the beautiful "Sarcophagus of the Two Brothers" in the Vatican Museums, where the relief busts of the two brothers are framed in a shell-like mandorla at the center of a series of scenes from the Bible, and especially from the life of Christ.

Sarcophagus of the Two Brothers
Roman, c. 325-350
Vatican, Pio-Cristiano Museum

It appears in Christian painting as early as the 6th century in Byzantine Syria. Here the geniuses of the pagan images have been transformed into Christian angels.

Wooden Reliquary Painted with Scenes from the Life of Christ
Syrian, 6th Century
Vatican, Vatican Museums, Chapel of St. Peter Martyr 

The Ascension
From the Rabbula Gospels
Syrian, c. 586
Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana
MS cod. Plut. I, 56, fol. 13v

From these beginnings this motif had a long history in Western Christian art, as well as in the art of Byzantium.

Fresco of the Ascension
Italian, c. 847-855
Rome, Church of San Clemente, Lower Church

The Ascension
From the Poussay Gospels
German (Reichenau), c. 980
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France,
MS Latin 10514, 66v

Ivory Panel of the Ascension
Byzantine (Constantinople), c. 1000-1050
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Ivory Plaque of the Ascension
From a Triptych
French, 11th Century
Paris, Musée du Louvre 

Ivory Plaque of the Ascension
Byzantine, 11th-12th Century
Berlin, Skulpturensammlung und Museum füByzantinische Kunst der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin

Some artists who chose to place the figure of Jesus in a mandorla also continued to show Him making the gestures that are most properly associated with the motif of Striding into Heaven. Possibly they were relying on pattern books that showed the figure of Jesus, copied from the earlier images of striding, but not the surroundings that made the gestures understandable in context.  For them, His gestures might simply have been what He was supposed to do when ascending.  This confusion existed over multiple manuscripts and over a wide sweep of territory, from Austria to Normandy in the 10th and 11th centuries.

The Ascension
From the Gradual of St. Salvatoris
German (Prüm), c. 986-1001
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9448, fol. 45v

The Ascension
From the Mont-Saint-Michel Sacramantary
French (Mont-Saint-Michel), c. 1050-1065
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 641, fol. 75v

The Ascension
From a Gospel Lectionary
Austrian (Salzburg), 1045-1055
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 44, fol. 100v

However, from the 11th century onward when artists used the mandorla to surround the ascending Jesus, they placed Him in the classical, straightforward facing manner.  The mandorla itself could be the classic almond shape, or a smooth oval or a circle, or in at least one case, a rectangle.

The Ascension
From a Gospel Lectionary
Austrian (Salzburg), c. 1060-1080
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 780, fol. 48r

The Ascension
From Orationes encomiasticae by Jacobus Kokkinobaphi
Byzantine (Constantinople), c. 1100-1150
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Grec 1208, 3v

The Ascension
From a Gospel Book
German (Prüm), c. 1100-1130
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 17325, 39v

Portal of the Ascension
French, 1145
Chartres, Cathedral, West facade, Left Portal

Tympanum Detail, Portal of the Ascension
French, 1145
Chartres, Cathedral, West facade, Left Portal

The Ascension
From a Psalter
German or Swiss, c. 1208-1228
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 8, fol. 11v

Workshop of Pacino di Bonaguida, The Ascension
From the Life of Christ and the Life of Blessed Gerard of Villamagna
Italian (Florence), c. 1315-1325
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 643, fol. 17r

Andrea da Firenze, The Ascension
Italian, c. 1366-1367
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Spanish Chapel

The Ascension
From the Breviare de Martin d'Artagon
Spanish, c. 1398-1430
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Rothschild 2529, fol. 233v 

Master of Spencer 6, The Ascension
From a Missal
French (Tours), c. 1490-1520
New  York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 495, fol. 52ra

Pietro Perugino, The Ascension
Italian, c. 1510
Sansepolcro, Cathedral

Pieter Coecke van Aelst, The Ascension Tapestry
Flemish, c. 1520-1528
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister

Jesus being lifted on a cloud

This also has some affinity with the same classical sources as does the mandorla type.  It developed over the centuries, beginning with the image of Christ standing on a cloud as He ascends, found in a series of books illuminated with a virtually identical image at the Imperial scriptorium in the monastery of Reichenau at the beginning of the 11th century.

The Ascension
From the Book of Pericopes of Heinrich II
German (Reichenau), c. 1007-1012
Munich, Bayerisches StaatsBibliothek
MS Clm 4452, fol. 131v

The Ascension
From the Bamberg Apocalypse
German (Reichenau), 1010
Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek Bamberg
MS Msc. Bibl. 140, fol. 71v

The Ascension
From the Treves Sacramentary
German (Reichenau), c. 1020-1040
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 18005, fol. 89v

Giovanni di Benedetto & Workshop, The Ascension
From a Missal and Book of Hours
Italian, c. 1385-1390
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 757, fol. 331v

Many images combine elements of the previously developed motifs as well, including elements from the scene of Jesus striding to heaven with mandorla-like elements in the cloud formations.

The Ascension
From a Bible
Luxembourg (Echternach), c. 1050-1075
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 10438, fol. 138

Silvestro dei Gerarducci, The Ascension
Page from a Gradual
Italian (Florence), c. 1392-1399
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 653, fol. 3r

Lorenzo Monaco, The Ascension
From an Antiphonary
Italian, c. 1410
Private Collection

Sometimes the clouds retained something of the form of the older mandorla image.

Master of Jacquemart Pilavaine, The Ascension
From Postilla litteralis by Nicolas of Lyra
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 128 C 8, fol. 21r
Here Christ is carried on a cloud toward God the Father, seated in a mandorla and indicating the
seat at His right hand that is reserved for the Son.

Johann Koerbecke, The Ascension
German, 1456-1457
Washington, National Gallery of Art
In this image Christ rises in a mandorla shaped cloud formation accompanied by similar formations that carry the
prophets, including John the Baptist, instead of the usual angels.

Andrea Mantegna, The Ascension
Italian, 1460-1464
Florence, Galleria degli'Uffizi

Andrea della Robbia, The Ascension
Italian, c. 1490
La Verna, Chiesa Maggiore

From the beginning of the sixteenth century, this motif began to assume the form that it would display for the next several hundred years.  During these centuries this became the most common iconographic form for artists when painting the subject of the Ascension of Christ.

Anonymous, The Ascension
Italian, c. 1550
Vienna, Künsthistorisches Museum

Paolo Veronese, The Ascension
Italian, 1575
Padua, San Francesco Grande

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Ascension
Italian, 1579-1581
Venice, Scuolo Grande di San Rocco

Paolo Veronese, The Ascension
Italian, c. 1585
Rome, Capitoline Museum

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Ascension
Dutch, 1636
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek

Attributed to Carlo Francesco Nuvolone, The Ascension
Italian, c. 1640
Bordeaux, Musée des Beaux-Arts

David Teniers the Younger, The Ascension
Dutch, c.1650
Neuburg-Donau, Staatsgalerie

Philips Wouwerman,  The Ascension
Dutch, 1650-1655
Braunschweig, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum

David Teniers the Younger, The Ascension
Dutch, c. 1651-1656
London, The Wallace Collection

Pierre Berchet. The Ascension
French, 1693-1694
Oxford, Trinity College, University of Oxford

Francois Verdier, The Ascension
French, c. 1700
Vienna, Künsthistorisches Museum

Adriaen van der Werff, The Ascension
Dutch, 1710
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek

James Thornhill, The Ascension
English, 1720s
Dorchester (UK), Dorset County Museum

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, The Ascension
Italian, c. 1745-1750
Richmond (VA), Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

William Hogarth, The Ascension
Center of Altarpiece of St. Mary Redcliffe Church, Bristol (UK)
English, 1755-1756
Bristol (UK), Museum and Art Gallery

John Singleton Copley, The Ascension
American, 1775
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

Anton Raphael Mengs, The Ascension
German, c. 1770
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister

Benjamin West, The Ascension
American, 1801
Denver (CO), Denver Museum, Berger Collection

John Constable, The Ascension
English, 1821-1822
Colchester (UK), St. Mary's Church

Eduard von Gebhardt, The Ascension
German, 1881
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin

Peter W. Rogers, The Ascension
English, 1963
Oxford, Oxford Brookes University

By the last decades of the nineteenth century artists had largely abandoned the cloud motif in favor of alternatives.  It has not been entirely abandoned, however, as a painting from 1963 by the English artist, Peter Rogers, demonstrates.  However, in keeping with the prevalent fears of 1963, the formerly benign fluffy cloud has become the menacing mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb, which seems to suck the figure of Jesus into the sky.

For the other iconographic motifs of the Ascension see:

  • Jesus Striding into Heaven (here)
  • The Disappearing Feet of Jesus (here)
  • The Direct Ascension (here)

© M. Duffy, 2011, revised 2017, additional material added 2022.

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.

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