In the Roman Catholic Liturgical year, the Ascension of Christ is celebrated on the sixth Thursday after Easter Sunday, on May 13, 2021. The Assumption of Mary will be celebrated on Sunday, August 15, 2021. The Ascension and Assumption have frequently been depicted in western art from the 11th to the 18th Century.
The Ascension story is told in the Gospels of Mark and Luke and in Acts. Ascension images were produced in the Early Christian era (c400 CE). This “Ascension of Christ” (1180-1185) is one of the earliest Western examples. Commissioned by Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England (1153-1189) and mother of Richard the Lionheart, this image is one of the earliest known from an illuminated manuscript, a hand written and hand painted book. This book of Psalms includes other religious figures and stories of her choosing. Illuminated manuscripts were produced in monasteries from 1100 until 1600.
Forty days after the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday, the disciples were called together by Christ on the Mount of Olives for some final words. They witnessed Christ’s ascension as he miraculously rose from the Mount of Olives into Heaven on his own volition. There are fourteen halos visible, but the only clear figures are St Peter and St John the Evangelist. Always identified by his short gray beard and short gray hair, Peter stands at the center and he wears a blue robe and beige stole. At the far right, John, always represented as the youngest disciple, wears a light green robe with a jeweled collar and beige stole. He is the only disciple that is clean shaven. John holds a book, his gospel, as does the figure in the green robe and jeweled collar to Peter’s left. The four front figures, not including Peter, all have jeweled collars, and three are holding books. The four with jeweled collars and holding books are presumably Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. John is the only one clearly identified.
Typical of early ascension images, the disciples look to heaven. Only Christ’s feet and lower part of His robe are depicted. He has ascended into a golden heaven and taken into a large blue cloud. Christ and the disciples are all bare-footed, a sign of their humanity and humility. The anonymous painter has limited technical ability with the three-dimensional space and with the human body, including facial features and expression. However, he has employed the colors of green, orange, and blue, to create a well-designed composition.
The most popular depictions of the Ascension show a cloud and Christ’s footprints on the top of the Mt of Olives. In some renditions, only the foot prints are seen. ”Ascension of Christ” (1511-1513) (43.8’’ x 45’’) (Master of the Dominican Cycle) continued to depict only Christ’s feet and robe. The painter was active in the city of Nuremberg during the time of Albrecht Durer. This painting clearly shows the influence of Durer in the similarity of faces and figure types. Mary wears a blue gown with the white whimple, a head covering worn by women and nuns, and she kneels with praying hands at the left. Behind her, wearing a red robe, young John is clean shaven with blond hair. Peter is front and center in a white robe. Interesting additions are the four small shields on the ground between Mary and Peter. They likely are family crests of the patrons.
The evolution of the image of the ascension can be seen in Rembrandt’s “Ascension of Christ” (1636) (36.6’’ x 27’’). During the Baroque period of the 17th Century, artists wanted to depict scenes with as much emotion as possible, and Rembrandt’s painting fulfills that desire. He uses light and dark to create a dramatic and emotion scene. The Christ figure glows, sending off rays of brilliant light. He is surrounded by angels as he rises with outstretched arms toward the golden light of heaven that encircles the Dove of the Holy Spirit. The disciples watch from below in wonder and amazement. The faces of John and Peter catch the light of Christ’s radiance. At the right of center, John kneels with his arms outstretched in a white robe. Diagonally behind John, with his hands held up in prayer, Peter looks up, directing the viewer to Christ.
Although the story of the Assumption of the Virgin is not included in the Bible, the Council of Ephesus recognized the subject in 421 CE. It became a very popular subject for Western artists from the 12th Century when Mary’s status was elevated to Mother of God and Queen of Heaven. Fra Angelico’s “Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin”) (1424-1434) (24.5’’ x 15’’) (Gardner Museum, Boston) combines two parts of the story. The Catholic Church struggled with the idea of the death of Mary, but finally declared, she, like Christ, had died and was restored again. Thus, in the lower part of this altar, Fra Angelico includes Mary’s dormition (a peaceful and painless death) that was witnessed by the 12 disciples. John kneels by Mary’s head and Peter leans over and touches her. They, along with the two disciples at the foot of the bed, will lift Mary’s body and place her in a tomb. Christ, in by his blue robe elaborately decorated with gold, gently holds Mary’s infant soul in his arms. He is depicted as Christ, Mary’s son, but wears the Trinity halo.
In the upper section of the altar, Mary has been lifted into the golden light of heaven, and greeted by radiantly attired angels, and serenaded by an angelic orchestra. Above her, in the rich blue heaven surrounded by seven cherubim, Christ reaches down to accept her into heaven. Guido Di Pietro was the Dominican Friar who painted this work. He was acclaimed by all as Fra Angelico as a result of of his glorious representations of heavenly events. His heavenly figures are dressed in light pastel colors with rich gold trim. Included in Fra Angelico’s lavish presentations are the gold tooled decoration at the top and bottom and the lavish frames.
Titian’s “Assumption of the Virgin” (1515-1518) at 22’8’’ tall and 11’10’’ wide, continues the magnificence depiction of the subject. Three days after her death, Christ and the apostles appear at Mary’s tomb. The Gold Legend of Jacopo della Voragine (1289) describes the event: “And anon the soul came again to the body of Mary, and issued gloriously out of the tomb, and thus was received in the heavenly chamber, and a great company of angels with her.”
In the lower third of the altar, the disciples are arranged in a large upward moving triangle. The apostles’ emotional response as they witness the miracle is palpable. Two apostles stand out in their red robes. As they gesture and look upward, their bodies angle inward forming the sides of the triangle. In the middle third, Mary rises weightlessly on a white cloud that is born upward by cherubs. The fabric of her red dress folds beneath the green stole and forms a triangle. It completes the triangular arrangement of figures from below, and the diagonal fold of the green stole creates another upward movement.
Titian’s use of colors to emphasize composition is exceptional. The white cloud in the middle section of the altar is designed to complement the arched frame. It is raised upward by two charming cherubs below; they push at two points of the cloud, creating a semi-circle. Together the cloud and the arch enclose the golden light of heaven in a circle.
The top third of the altar piece depicts Christ, out stretched arms, welcoming Mary. He wears a green robe and a red stole. Mary’s green stole repeats the green of Christ’s robe and the rest of her green stole forms a sweeping circle that surrounds her arms and head. The upward movement of the lower two-thirds of the altar is gently halted by Christ’s horizontal pose.
Viewing art in museums allows the public the opportunity to appreciate the works of numerous artists and styles. Viewing a work in situ (original place) offers viewers a different experience. Titian’s “Assumption of the Virgin” is the high altar of Santa Maria Glorioso dei Frari, Venice. The golden altar below and the golden arched frame, including the stately Corinthian columns, are part of the design. Titian’s use of red paint is understood when the red brick structure of the walls and arches are seen. The pointed arches of the Gothic apse, surround the altar on both sides and rise two tiers above. The natural light enhances this breathtaking scene.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.