Friday, May 5, 2017

Iconography of the Ascension, Part IV of IV – The Direct Approach

Jean Colombe, Ascension
from the Hours of Anne of France
French (Bourges), 1470-1480
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 677, 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)
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.

Ivory Plaque with the Ascension
German (Rhineland), c. 1050
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection

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. 

from a Psalter
English (Salisbury), 1350-1375
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 765, fol. 19

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.  

Jacopo di Cione and Workshop, Ascension
Italian, 1370-1371
London, National Gallery

Limbourg Brothers, Ascension
fromt he Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
Dutch, 1412-1416
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 M 944, fol. 35v

Luca della Robbia, Ascension
Italian, 1446
Florence, Cathedral

Master of the Life of the Virgin, Ascension
German, 1473
Philadelphia, Museum of Art

Altarpiece from Thuison-les-Abbeville
French, c. 1490-1500
Chicago, Art Institute

Il Garofalo, Ascension
Italian, 1510-1520
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)
Italian, 1569
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. 

Gustave Doré, Ascension
French, 1879
Paris, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris

James Tissot, Ascension
French, 1886-1894
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

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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