The Ascension of Christ into Heaven is recounted at the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts. In paleo-Christian art there were two ways to picture it: Christ rising in a mandorla, as in the first picture at right, or striding upward as if on a mountain, as in the second.
According to Kessler, the mandorla began in the East to reflect a reading from Ezekiel 1 in the Ascension Day liturgy. The medieval West used Acts 1:9-12 instead, but the passive verbs in that passage are also consistent with the mandorla iconography, which became the dominant type.1
In this tradition, angels raise the mandorla while Mary stands directly below. She is not mentioned in either of the two scripture accounts, but, as Robert Deshman puts it, her presence can "reflect physically the supernatural enlightenment that Christ's divinity had shed on her and all humankind in the Incarnation."2 Usually she holds her hands in prayer – either "orant" in the earlier images (as at right) or pressed together, as in later ones (example). The apostles usually look up toward the mandorla. Occasionally Saints Peter and Paul will be distinguishable among them (as at right and in this fresco), even though in Acts Paul enters the narrative a good deal later. Only a few examples have the admonishing angels.
In most of these images Christ blesses the viewer with his right hand. Many will have him enthroned within the mandorla, and his left hand will sometimes holds a scroll or book (example), Simpler variations may leave out the people below the mandorla or even the angels (example).
CLIMBING TO HEAVEN
Images where Christ's ascent is pictured as a climb to Heaven go back to at least the beginning of the 5th century. In them he either climbs an "actual" mountain or is simply pictured as if he were walking upward. This necessitates posing him in profile, so there can be no blessing of the viewer. Instead his right hand reaches up, and in some images the Father's hand reaches down.
This iconography is much less common than the mandorla tradition. It does, however, influence Giotto's Ascension frescos at Assisi and in the Scrovegni Chapel.
Kessler relates the climb to early Western Ascension liturgies that used the passage in Exodus in which Moses ascends to the mountaintop. Its continuing use by later artists such as Giotto could be influenced by 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."3
THE DISAPPEARING FEET
Medieval works sometimes follow a third tradition in which one sees only Christ's feet and the hem of his garment. The rest is hidden in a cloud that "received him out of their sight" (Acts 1:9). Usually the Apostles are looking up at their disappearing Lord. The third picture at right is an example. As in most of the mandorla images, the feet are bare. Mary is not mentioned in either of the Ascension in Luke and Acts, but she is often included in the images, either centered displaced from the center of the composition to the left side (example) or left out entirely, as at right.
Desham's "Another Look at the Disappearing Christ" 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.4
LATER DEVELOPMENTS IN THE WEST
Beginning in the late 15th century in the West, the mandorla loses favor and Ascension images emphasize more and more the "glorification" of the risen Christ that is at the core of the Christian message.5 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 an 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.
LUKE 24:50-51 — And he led them out as far as Bethania: and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. And it came to pass, whilst he blessed them, he departed from them, and was carried up to heaven.