‘May he enlighten the eyes of your mind
so that you can see what hope his call holds for you …’
The Ascension of the Lord is (in normal times) a Holy Day of Obligation; a celebration that calls us to make use of the eyes and sight of faith so as to grow in hope and to deepen our understanding. Through the latter part of Lent and now in these post-Easter days we are accompanied by the evangelist John and have become familiar with the themes of, and links between, light, sight, faith and truth.
* * * * *
‘… the Lord Jesus …
ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state
but that we, his members, might be confident of following
where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.’
[from Preface I of the Ascension of the Lord]
Let us compare two paintings, one by Giotto (c.1267–1337) and one by Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450–1516) for together they offer a sort of visual truth of the words of the Preface.
Firstly, Giotto’s ‘The Ascension of Christ’ (1304–06) in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, and secondly Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘Ascension of the Blessed’, also known as ‘Ascension of the Righteous’ (1500–1504), in the Palazzo Grimani di Santa Maria Formosa, Venice.
In the Giotto painting, the figure of the ascending Jesus is surrounded first by a mandorla of golden light and then by a much darker area. The words of the prologue to the Gospel according to John (1:5) may come to mind:
‘… a light that shines in the dark,
a light that darkness could not overpower.’
The more intense the darkness, the brighter the light appears to be. However, as so often in Christianity, and life in general, a simple binary approach, a placing of apparent opposites is inadequate. That dark space speaks powerfully. The figure pushes through the edge of the painting, breaking through the boundary from earth into heaven.
‘… where the Head has gone before in glory,
the Body is called to follow in hope.’
[from the Collect at the Mass during the Day]
In the Bosch depiction, the dark space is replaced by a circle of intense light into which the righteous, their hands fixed in posture of prayer, are drawn, so following in their turn their ascended Lord and Saviour.
A close-up detail from the painting makes the point even more clearly and may perhaps remind us of the words of the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year A): ‘and after I have gone … I shall return to take you with me’ (John 14:3)
Light and dark. The One and the many.
So often the Ascension, which seems almost to defy visual or verbal description, is depicted in terms of light. (A similar comment may be made of Pentecost.)
A modern rendering, for example, would be Peter Rogers’ (born 1933) ‘Ascension’ (1962), now part of the Methodist Modern Art Collection. The subject of the Ascension is one to which Rogers has returned over and again in his career. I’ve always imagined something of the brilliant light and mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion about this painting (but some wag at college made a comment about a similarity to the FIFA World Cup Trophy):
We must, of course, always remember that the Ascension is but one part of the full work of Jesus, one moment in a series of moments – Life, Passion, Death, Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost (the sending of the Holy Spirit), etc.
A particular favourite of mine is a painting by Albrecht Altdorfer (c.1480–1538) which powerfully expresses a profound theological truth in accessible visual form, his ‘Ascension of Christ’ (1527), now in the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland. The painting is almost a horizontal diptych with a lower earthly half (the Resurrection) and an upper heavenly half (the Ascension). Both are linked, as indeed the earthly is linked to the heavenly, through the same depiction of light and colour, the two events are connected.