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Unknown artist, Syria

Ascension, from the Rabbula (Rabula) Gospels, c.586, Tempera on parchment, 330 x 250 mm, Biblioteca Medievo Laurenziano, Florence, Cod. Plut. I. 56, fol. 13v, Su concessione del MiBACT, E' vietata ogni ulteriore riproduzione con qualsiasi mezzo / By permission of MiBACT, Any further reproduction by any means is prohibited

Master of the Vyšší Brod Altar

Ascension of Christ, from the series 'Scenes from the Life of Christ', the Hohenfurth monastery, c.1350, Tempera on wood, 99 x 92.5 cm, Národní galerie Praha, NG O 6793, akg-images / André Held

Donatello

The Ascension with Christ giving the Keys to St Peter, c.1428–30, Carved marble in very low relief, 40.9 x 114.1 cm; Weight: 60.5 kg, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 7629-1861, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Let Heaven and Earth Combine

Comparative Commentary by

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’.

 

Next exhibition: Luke 1:26–38 Next exhibition: Luke 21:5-38 Next exhibition: Acts of the Apostles 2:1–13