The Ascension of Christ into Heaven is recounted in Mark 16:19, Luke 24:50-51, and Acts 1:9-11. In early Christian art two different image types pictured this event. Dewald distinguishes the two as the "Oriental" and the "Hellenistic."1 The Hellenistic type is chiefly concerned with picturing the historical event, while the Oriental addresses its meaning.
THE "ORIENTAL" TYPEThe earliest known example of the Oriental image type is the illustration in the first picture at right, from a Syriac gospel book. It ignores the testimony of scripture and the apocrypha that only the eleven disciples were present, adding St. Paul and the Virgin Mary, who stands orant in the center beneath the images surrounding Christ.2 This image type draws on Ezekiel 1, which was read in the Syriac liturgy for the feast of the Ascension.3 In that chapter, Ezekiel sees "the likeness of a throne…and upon the likeness of the throne, was a likeness as of the appearance of a man above upon it" (1:28), attended by four Seraphim who move on four wheels that "sparkled like topaz" (1:15-16) In 2:1 he concludes, "This was the vision of the likeness of the glory of the Lord." In the manuscript illustration the "likeness of the glory of the Lord" is Christ, attended by four angels and standing in a wheeled mandorla supported by a Seraph. His left hand holds a large scroll, referencing the one that Ezekiel is told to eat (2:8-9). From the bottom of this complex image a hand reaches down toward Mary, identifying her with the prophet, of whom Ezekiel 1:3 says, "the hand of the Lord was there upon him [Latin super eum]."
Scholars have attributed the prominence of Mary in this image type to "an intention to give the scene a subsidiary meaning as a glorification of the Virgin."4 But more likely she and the twelve men flanking her represent the Church whom Christ has just appointed to "be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."5 The Church thus becomes a prophet like Ezekiel, who had been told, "I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious people, that hath revolted from me" (2:3).
In some versions of the Oriental type a dove descends upon the head of Mary. In the former dispensation Ezekiel had had only the injunction to proceed bravely on his own: "Do not fear, even though there are briers and thorns and you sit among scorpions" (Ezekiel 2:6). But now at the Ascension Christ promises the disciples that "you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you" (Acts 1:8).
Images of this type always put the actual figure of Christ inside a mandorla. In most of them he blesses the viewer with his right hand as he ascends, following Luke 24:50, and in many his other hand will hold a scroll or book. Many will have him enthroned, as in Ezekiel 1:26. In the Romanesque and later medieval periods the mandorla may be retained but the iconography is gradually simplified and focuses more on the glorification of Christ. This 12th-century relief in Rome excises Mary and the disciples and has little connection to Ezekiel beyond the angels and the stylized throne, and this example from the 13th leaves out even the angels.
Dewald chose the term "Oriental" because to his mind "the unreal and abstract treatment gives the scene a mystic character consistent with Oriental habits of thought" (279). This is nonsense, but in view of the connection with Syriac art and liturgy I have chosen to retain the term here.
THE "HELLENISTIC" TYPEThe "Hellenistic" image type goes back at least to the end of the 4th century (Dewald, 279). The second picture at right is an example. In contrast to the symbolism and ecclesiology of the Oriental type, it presents only a few disciples reacting in awe as Christ ascends a mountain, reaching out toward a hand that emerges from a cloud. The mountain alludes to Psalm 23:3-4, which was read in the Ascension liturgy in western churches: "Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Lord: or who shall stand in his holy place? The innocent in hands, and clean of heart, who hath not taken his soul in vain, nor sworn deceitfully to his neighbour." In ascending the mountain, in other words, Christ is modeling the way to salvation for every person who will follow him in "cleanness of heart."
Dewald considered this image type "Hellenistic" because it was "realistic" in the way it represents the figures and their setting, like the classical art of Greece and Rome. It was less influential than the "Oriental" and is very rare in the West after the twelfth century, although Giotto did adapt it for his Ascension frescoes at Assisi and in the Scrovegni Chapel, and it may have influenced the composing of the Alleluia verse in medieval Ascension liturgies: Dominus in Sina in sancto ascendens in altum captivam duxit captivitatem, "the Lord leads captivity captive, climbing on high to his holy place on Sinai."6
THE "GOTHIC" TYPEA third image type, which Dewald calls "Gothic," can be seen in many Ascensions of the late 12th century through the 15th. In this type one sees only Christ's feet and the hem of his garment. The rest is hidden in the cloud that "received him out of their sight" (Acts 1:9). Usually the disciples are looking up at their disappearing Lord. The third picture at right is an example. As in most of the "Oriental" images, the feet are bare. Mary is often included, either centered or displaced to the left side (example).
Desham explains the disappearing feet as a way of leading the viewer to vicarious participation in the event, which was typical of 11th-century art, commentaries, and liturgical innovations. A number of commentators held that the feet symbolize Christ's humanity, which the faithful will continue to have with them in the form of the Eucharist and the visible Church, while the cloud represents his divinity, which they will see fully only in Heaven.7
LATER DEVELOPMENTS IN THE WESTIn the Renaissance and later, Ascension images emphasize more and more the "glorification" of the risen Christ that is at the core of the Christian message.8 A few works do this simply by showing rays of light emanating from the figure of Christ (example). But mostly the art moves toward an Ascension that places Christ in a surround of angels and brilliant light. The first step appears to have been taken by Melozzo da Forlì in a 15th-century Ascension fresco of which only fragments now remain. In one fragment the ascending Christ stands on a cloud and is surrounded by angels: Then in about 1510-20 Garofalo surrounds the figure of Christ with brilliant light: This approach to the subject is the kind of thing that the Baroque revels in, so by the 18th century we find Ascensions like this:
Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-07, 2018-09-13, 2020-06-24, 2021-07-24.