One problem in thinking about depictions of the Ascension is that, for most of the artists who have treated it (and still for most churchgoers), it is the liturgical celebration of the Ascension—forty days after Easter and ten days before Pentecost—that governs their/our sense of the Lord’s Ascension. It is imagined as an historical event that took place between the Resurrection and the Descent of the Holy Spirit.
But only Luke, in his Gospel and the book of Acts, thinks of the Ascension in such a historically defined way. Both Matthew, in the concluding verses of the Gospel (Matthew 28:16–20), and the last verses of the longer continuation of Mark (Mark 16:19–20), seem to suggest a much sooner end to Jesus’s Resurrection appearances, giving way to the preaching of the apostles. Meanwhile the Evangelist John speaks of Christ’s ‘ascending to the Father’ after the Resurrection in the context of Jesus’s encounter with Mary Magdalene in the garden on the morning of the Resurrection. Here, while there seems to be some kind of ‘not yet’ about his Ascension, it also seems just about to take place—and this on the day of the Resurrection itself. This entails a distance between the Magdalene and Christ, which Titian has perhaps most famously captured in his Noli Me Tangere.
As we have noticed, all three depictions in this exhibition confront the question of the historical. The fact that they respond to it in different ways highlights how the influence of more than one Gospel may be at work in them. Are these visual depictions of a specific event in time, or is something else going on?
What might be called a ‘Lukan’ approach is found in both the Western depictions, for both of them think of Christ’s departure and what comes next: the preaching of the apostles and the Church. The difference seems most marked if we compare the Rabbula Gospels’ illuminated page with Donatello’s bas-relief. For it is in the history of the institution of the Roman Church and its papal claims, resting on the donation of the keys, that Donatello sees the meaning of the Ascension; whereas the icon speaks of something more tangible and personal.
The manuscript icon could, moreover, be regarded as more ‘Johannine’ in that there is a marked sense of the collapsing of historical sequence: the apostles include St Paul, then historically still a persecutor of the Church. Furthermore, by including both heaven and earth in the picture, there is some sense that the division between heaven and earth is transcended in the Ascension. Christ is ‘in no way parted, but remaining inseparable’: an allusion to his human and divine natures, united but distinct. Here the Christology of the Chalcedonian definition of faith informs the meaning of the Ascension. The union of heaven and earth is rooted in the union of human and divine in Christ. It is in the light of this reality, that any notion of separation or absence on Christ’s part dwindles into insignificance. It is affirmed at the heart of the liturgy, when the earthly church, gathered before the altar, joins with the heavenly beings in singing the Sanctus.
Prayer is not at all absent from the Western depictions of the Ascension. Indeed, in addition to Mary, who is always depicted in prayer, some, at least, of the apostles seem to be praying, whereas in the Ascension from the Rabbula Gospels, their gestures seem rather of pointing to Christ, present enthroned in the heavens. But the notion of prayer seems different—something encouraged by the difference between the Eastern kontakion and the Western Collect for the Feast. Whereas the Eastern kontakion speaks of something dogmatically established (if we can put it like that), the Western collect speaks of a subjective personal ascent to be with Christ, whereby we may continually dwell with Christ, rather than the assurance of the kontakion that ‘I am with you, and there is no one against you’.
19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. 20And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it. Amen.
50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. 52And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53and were continually in the temple blessing God.
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samarʹia and to the end of the earth.” 9And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”