The ceremony, which coincides with the 7th Easter Sunday, has been very much represented in art from the very beginning of Christian art. Over time, frontal iconography has established itself, with Christ in glory in heaven, in the presence of the apostles and Mary. In fact, it is born in a different way and adheres specifically to the words of the Gospels. It appears for the first time in the catacombs of San Sebastiano in Rome and reaches its climax with Giotto
Maria Milvia Morciano – Vatican City State
In the Gospels, the ascension of our Lord is entrusted to the few words of Luke and Mark:
While blessing them, he detached himself from them and was carried to heaven (Luke 24: 51).
The Lord Jesus, after speaking with them, was lifted up to heaven and sat at the right hand of God (Mark 16:19)
Both Gospels end with Christ’s ascension to heaven and with the apostles, who begin their journey of preaching, and are linked to the first words of the Acts of the Apostles, which add details:
After saying this, he was lifted up while they were looking at him and a cloud stole him from their eyes. They were staring up at the sky as he walked, when suddenly two men in white robes came to them and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you look up to the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you. Into heaven, he will come in the same way you saw him go to heaven (1, 9-11).
They are few words, but extraordinarily concrete, capable of making us literally visualize the event.
A widespread iconography
It will therefore come as no surprise why the ascension is so recurring in art. We will focus only on a certain type of iconography: the one with Christ in profile and not in frontal position as in the glory of Byzantine derivation, which we will find through time and very widespread through centuries, and with few variations will remain unchanged even in Baroque art.
In Rome the oldest Ascension, in the catacombs of San Sebastiano
A representation of the ascension can be found in Rome, in the catacombs of San Sebastiano. A now fleeting but clear picture. Against a sky of purple clouds stands the profile of the Lord, with his garments, as if shaken by the wind. The right foot is still on the ground, and the other rests higher, on a ledge with the knee bent, as if to accelerate, and depicts exactly the moment when the Lord is about to leave the earth, to seize the hand of God that rises from the clouds and draws him to himself. It is a picture of extraordinary realism and efficiency. All around, two disciples look on in amazement. It is the oldest known image, it dates back to the 4th century.
As we have read in the Gospels, one word occurs several times: heaven. In fact in Actions it is repeated four times and three times within the same sentence. This iconography thus appears to be perfectly consistent with the history of the gospel. A literal staging of the story made of words. This type of representation continues with other later examples and culminates in Giotto’s fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel.
It seems to see the casting of Roman painting, clearly enriched with details, such as the angels, the presence of many more apostles and Mary, in the middle clothed in darkness. Christ presents the same attitude as legs and arms on the painting of San Sebastian, but he rests his feet on a cloud, the same one that hid him from the apostles mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles.
His hands are literally cut out of the fresco, giving us the impression that in a few moments he will disappear into the sky. A solution that is often used in all-time figurations to expand in an illusory way the space delimited by the frame of a given work – by a painting, a fresco and in a widespread way by the miniatures – and make us imagine an impending action, in motion.
A symphony of hands and appearance
Giotto’s fresco appears to us as a symphony of hands and glances, but except for the eyes of some angels, all eyes are on the top of the composition, beyond the hands of Christ. They all look at the sky. A characteristic feature of Giotto’s painting is the gaze. If we look at the other frescoes of Scrovegni or in the upper basilica of Assisi, we are struck by the gaze exchanges between the figures. They look each other in the eyes and communicate intensely with them. In the fresco of Christ’s ascension, as mentioned, except for a few angels, no one looks at each other, no one is amazed and looks at the other as in the case of similar but different iconographies, the case of Pentecost or the resurrection. In this fresco, everyone is fixated with their eyes and minds completely immersed in the grace of heaven.