Ambrogio di Baldese
The Ascension of St. John

Circa 1390-95
Tempera and gold on wood panel
Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome, Italy

In the Golden Legend, Voragine says that on the day of his death John preached to his people and then had a pit dug in the church. He lay in it and prayed. In Caxton's version (but not Voragine's, see Ryan, I, 55), he said, "Sweet Lord Jesu Christ…if it please thee, receive me for to be with my brethren." Then both texts say he lay down in the pit and a "great clearness and light" blinded the congregation. When it faded he was gone and there was "manna" in the pit. Caxton adds, "Some say and affirm that he died without pain of death, and that he was in that clearness borne into heaven body and soul, whereof God knoweth the certainty."

Baldese's painting appears to rely on a source similar to Caxton's. John's "brethren," the Apostles, accompany Jesus in the upper left corner. The one in the green tunic with the short, square beard is probably St. Peter. Below, the gestures of the congregants may represent their reaction to the blinding light; one of them has actually fallen backward. But it is also clear that Baldese credits what "some say and affirm" about the bodily ascension. He pictures John as rising to Jesus' waiting arms not as a baby (the usual way of showing a soul ascending to Heaven) but as an emphatically embodied man with clothes that fold and bend, a realistic beard, and hair that could use a trim.

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More of St. John the Evangelist

Photographed at the Pinacoteca Vaticana by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.