Luke tells us that Christ ascended into Heaven after Easter. From the 4th century, a feast was celebrated, while artists began to depict the Ascension
– So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into Heaven and sat down at the right hand of God (Mark 16:19)
– Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into Heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:50-53)
– So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into Heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into Heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into Heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into Heaven.” (Acts1:6-12)
– No one has ascended into Heaven except he who descended from Heaven, the Son of Man. (John 3:13)
– Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (John 20:17)
(Standard Revised Edition)
Early Medieval Theology
Apart from the slight hint at the end of the Markian appendix (Mark 16:19) and a short text from John –the third Gospel and the Acts contribute the only texts, which outlines the final Ascension of Christ as an event. Significantly, these texts represent linchpins to the theology of Luke, in which Christ finally reveals himself as the God incarnate. Elsewhere, Luke is careful never to allow a hint that Jesus was “worshipped”. Now, in front of his congregation, Christ blesses them, withdraws from them. Finally, they are allowed to worship him for what he is, God incarnate.
In this storyline, movement plays an important part: he leads his followers out to Bethany (where his Entry into Jerusalem took its beginning), he lifts his hands, and he withdraws from them. Interestingly, though – he does not ascend by his own power. Instead, he is lifted up into Heaven – according to Mark – to sit next to God. Although ancient versions differ as to the exact text – some omit “and was carried up into heaven” and other the element of “worship”, the storyline is repeated in Acts with the same stress on movement. In, out, up, down. The faithful will recognise this didactic tool used in the creed.
Early on, the ascent of Christ into Heaven was recognised as a cornerstone in a full Christological theology. As such, it became important for both Justin († 165) and Tertullian († 225) to claim the corporeal transcendence of Christ was of the flesh. Tertullian described “Jesus as still sitting there at the right hand of the Father, man, yet God… flesh and blood, yet purer than ours).
Other theologians, though stressed the ubiquity of the person of Christ; a topos, which Augustine († 430) tried to explain to the faithful in a sermon held in Hippo, in which he characterised the event as a “grand and health-giving miracle” whereby Christ ascended into heaven “with the flesh, as he rose”. As John Chrysostom († 407) noted in another sermon from the same period, the acceptance of the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension were complementary elements in the story of the scandal of the incarnated body of Christ. Around the same time, the feast-day of the Ascension was established on the 40th day after the Resurrection, basing the date on the stories in Luke.
Early Medieval Iconography
Traditionally, art historians have distinguished between two different iconographic motifs: a Western idea of depicting the movement apparent in the Lukan narrative; and a more staid Eastern or Byzantine tradition of rendering the actual moment of the glorification of the Risen Christ.
One of the earliest depictions of what is regarded as a “Western Ascension” is preserved on ivory from c. 400, known as the “Reidersche Tafel”. Although we get a small crowd of (two) dispirited and despairing apostles, the crowds found in the later Eastern and more formalised iconography are absent. Superficially, also, the narrative told by the ivory seems to present a situation collapsed inside a Johannine timeframe, where the Ascension was said to take place in the evening on the first Sunday. However, the collapse of the two narrative elements – the Resurrection and the Ascension – should not be taken too seriously. To the left, above the sepulchre, we see a tree with two doves picking olives, indicating the geographic location. Thus, the Ascension at this early point has already “moved” to its later scene, the Mount of Olives. Here, a church – an Imbomon – was built on the hill between 384 and 390 by a Roman aristocrat, Poimenia. A pious and wealthy Roman aristocrat, she ordered the first open-air rotunda to be constructed in order to preserve the last footprints of Christ.
Another such early depiction of the Ascension is found on a panel from the early fifth century doors in Santa Sabina in Rome. Here we see the Ascension taking place in a whirlwind of clouds, leaving the despairing apostles behind. However, the panel also depicts the two angels from Luke’s acts lifting Christ into the Heaven above. Although the woodcarving seeks to provide a sense of fluidity and movement, the rendition is securely located in the Lukan narrative.
As opposed to this “fluid” motif rendering the Ascension as a movement through a cloudy landscape, the Eastern (Syrian or Byzantine) model depicts a frozen moment in time. Here we are, part of the gathered inner circle of Mary and the apostles, looking upwards into the sky where angels are busy lifting up the glorified Christ.
Curiously enough, the doors of Santa Sabina in Rome depict both versions – the fluid Western and the staid Eastern. In the latter panel, Christ is seen standing in a mandorla holding a scroll in his left hand while showing off the mark of crucifixion on his right. The mandorla is held up by the four evangelists. Below is a small group of Peter and Paul raising a hallowed crucifix above the head of Mary. The doors are dendrochronologically dated to AD 432, at the exact point on time, when the council of Ephesos decided that Mary should be regarded as “Theotokos”, Mother of God.
A somewhat later example of this type of image is found in the Syriac Gospels of Rabula from AD 586, which shows us four angels, who are lifting up Christ in a mandorla, which is placed on a winged chariot on fire enfolding the symbols of the four evangelists; below stands Mary dressed in her celestial blue gown in an orant position, adoring her son. On either side, two angels are lecturing the groups of worried, gesticulating, and frightened apostles. Finally, a Syrian painting on wood dated to the 6th century and preserved in the Vatican should be mentioned.
This carefully choreographed type of images soon came to dominate. They may be found in the Early Middle Ages on numerous phials, medallions, columns, frescoes and in illuminated manuscripts.
It has been suggested that the western type of the Ascension was inspired by the so-called apotheosis of the emperor, a motif depicting the enrolment of a mortal among the gods; or more precisely a deceased emperor elevated or consecrated to divine honours. Part of these rituals consisted of the construction of a tiered pyre from which an eagle was let to flight at the point of the actual moment of the incineration. Iconographic renditions of an apotheosis often depict an eagle or a Pegasus. As opposed to this, no direct inspiration for the eastern motif has been pointed out. However, Roman inspiration may have come from so-called clypeus portraits, in which the motif of flying erotes (or other fabled creatures) are holding up portrait medallions of a deceased individual.
In the Carolingian period (c. 800 – 1000) we get an amalgamation of these two motifs – Christ on the move and the adoring crowd. One of the earliest examples of this mixture may be found in the Sacramentary of Drogo (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS lat. 9428) from c. AD 850. In this miniature, we see Christ on the top of Mount Olive carrying his cross while reaching out for the hand of God. Below is the crowd being lectured by the angels, occupying the middle ground. The same combination can be found on ivories from book covers preserved in Essen, Berlin, and Brussels.
Finally, we get the Ottonian version where Christ is walking towards God, whose hand reaches out towards His son. However, this moving Christ is placed inside a mandorla: the crowd below is distinguished with being a mixture of both apostles and Mary, who is now robbed of the superior status known from the Byzantine tradition (Codex Egberti). Another version of this can be found in a panel of cut ivory, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Giotto painted the final version of this type of Ascensions in Padua.
The Dangling Feet
In the Romanesque period, a new and more daring version appeared. One of the more curious examples is a unique rendition of the Ascension from the monastery of St. Dominic in Silos in Catalonia, where we see the usual gathering of apostles and Mary beneath a cloud on top of which the head of a bearded Christ crops up. The rest is hidden by the clouds held up by two angels. This Romanesque relief is dated to the 11th century
The “dangling feet”, though, is the usual version of this partly hidden Christ. The first example of this motif is from the so-called Rich Evangeliary (fol 175v) preserved in Hildesheim. Dated to c. 1015, the illumination shows an early and somewhat longer version of his legs. Later examples typically end up showing less and less. On the other hand, they also begin to show the imprint of the final footsteps of Christ, recalling the stone preserved in the chapel at Mount Olive.
This motif may be found in numerous manuscripts, but also depicted on Gothic ivories and in medieval frescoes inside parish churches.
Late Medieval Popular Plays
Finally, in the Late Middle Ages, the tradition developed to enact the Ascension as a religious drama. In several medieval churches, a hole was cut in the roof of the church, often in front of the rod. Known as the “Holy-Spirit-Hole”, its use was to let doves and sometimes even burning sticks fall down upon the congregation at Pentecost. During the feast of the Ascension, a standing figure of Christ was drawn in the opposite direction up through this opening.
The earliest preserved text outlining the liturgy for this type of devotional play dates to 1363, and is found in a breviary, which belonged to Johannes von Berghausen. According to this text, the play was supposed to be staged in the afternoon and required the erection of a tent or a small shelter, which was to be covered with beautiful tapestries. The location was to be on the floor in the church below the hole in the roof. This building or shelter was intended to mimic the mountain of Sinai, the text says. Inside a figure of Christ was to be placed. This figure was supposed to be properly dressed in a humeral veil, surplice or alb, stole and chasuble. He should also carry a banner in his hand. Through the hole in the roof, a thin rope should be thrown, with which the figure might be hoisted into the sky. In two other ropes, flower wreaths should be hung. A sculptured dove should be fastened to one of these, and a figure of an angel to the other. The hole in the roof should be decorated with yet another flower wreath.
During the play, twelve schoolboys played the twelve apostles dressed in proper costumes, with cloaks of pelts and haloes with their names. Instead of names on the haloes, some were required to carry their symbols, for instance, Peter’s key. Another child was to play Maria, who was to be dressed as a widow. Finally, two boys should be dressed as angels with fastened wings and flower wreaths on their head. After having described the setting and the procession leading up to the small building, the text proceeded to indicate the chant with its different antiphons and refrains. The description ended with an admonition: it was necessary to take care that the devotional service did not become infected by noise, or ridiculous, frolicking and despicable behaviour; or even direct provocations. What exactly this might mean is not spelt out
Later in 1553, however, a Calvinistic theologian by the name of Thomas Kirschmeyer, ridiculed these festivities thereby supplying us with a precious description of the late-medieval traditions. According to him, the play was staged in the afternoon so that people had the opportunity to enjoy their dinner with a main course of “bird”, likely young chickens, accompanied by lots of wine or beer. Afterwards, people gathered in church ready for some boisterous merriment as they waited below to be enthralled by the hoisting up of Christ. Safely through, Christ was followed in the opposite direction by a figure of Satan, which was cast from above through the hole in the roof, and accompanied by cakes, nuts, hot coals and buckets of streaming water.
Folkloristic reports from Germany and Switzerland indicate these festivities continued far into the 20th century.
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Series: Manchester Medieval Literature and Culture
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