Here we have an unusual and original depiction of the Ascension. It is clearly an Ascension, as we can tell from the figures present. Mary (with her back turned towards us) and the apostles are in prayer. Christ is raised up above the rest, apparently about to ascend. Angels, rather dimly, are in readiness to lift the throne on which he is sitting up to heaven which merges in some way with the cloud.
But the central focus is really on another ‘event’: the giving of the keys of the Kingdom to Peter, who stretches out his hand to receive them. This is presented as the Lord’s last action before departing for heaven, which had been promised after Peter’s confession of faith in Christ at Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:19). As in many other Western treatments of this subject, we find here a sense that the Ascension is about Christ’s departure, and subsequent absence, from the world, but here Donatello gives it a further, and distinctly Catholic twist. Christ, now absent from the world, is present in it through his Church, led by St Peter, and his successors the popes, to whom he has bequeathed the keys of the Kingdom. The sense is that the historical institution of the Church, under the leadership of the Pope, is Christ’s presence in the world.
Donatello’s finely carved bas-relief was made in Florence barely a decade before an ecumenical Council was called in Ferrara, and then moved to Florence in 1439, in an attempt to reconcile the estranged Churches of the Eastern Byzantine Empire and the Western Papal Church. It may have been intended to sit below a niche housing a sculpture of Peter carved in the round. Together, these works would have focused the beholder’s attention on the historical claims of the Papal Church.
This sense of historical fact is enhanced by the treatment of the trees, less stylized and more naturalistic than in most earlier depictions, which emphasizes the earthly reality of the Mount of Olives, as do the walls and the towers of Jerusalem, which can be discerned in the distance.
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.”