Images of the Ascension

Forty days after Easter, on a Thursday, the Church commemorates the Feast of the Ascension, the day Jesus is remembered as having ascended bodily into the skies in a dramatic “final departure”, recorded in the first chapter in the book of Acts. I can’t help but be reminded of the many paintings from my art history classes around this subject. Many of the examples you will find are constructed in a similar manner. Jesus is typically the central figure, sometimes surrounded by heavenly beings. He is often hovering above the ground, usually suspended on a cloud of some kind with his arms outstretched and his gaze heavenward. I find there is usually a docile energy to these scenes, an almost disingenuous quality to the hyper-posed figures. Not all the depictions of this subject are like this of course, but it is more common than you might realize. There are, however, two unique paintings of the Ascension which I find much more mesmerizing, even contemplative.

The first, is a watercolor by James Tissot, circa 1886-1894. In this depiction, Jesus is not visible at all. Instead, there is simply a pair of footprints left on the mount, flanked by two strange and stoic angels whose gaze locks with the viewer while they calmly point “up”. Surrounding the lower portion of the scene is a crowd of spectators, franticly searching the sky in shock and amazement. “Do not cling to me…” I hear Jesus saying to us. And while we deeply yearn to accept the beauty and power of Jesus’ request, we can’t quite silence our egoic fear that we have somehow been “left behind” falling prey to our mind-made traumas like the crowd in the painting.

The second painting is The Ascension of the Christ, 1958 by Salvador Dali. Here, in typical Dali fashion, The entire perspective of the painting is turned on its head. The central focus is of Christ’s feet, as if the viewer is underneath Jesus as he ascends away from us. Jesus’ hands are clenched awkwardly, and we see his body encircled in an almost egg-like aura while God (represented by Dali’s wife) and the Holy Spirit as a dove await the approaching Christ. There is a sense of both birth and death in the same instant in Dali’s image. The dynamism of the trinity itself is on full display in this fantastic moment as Christ is both present in creation while absorbed back into oneness with Creator and Spirit.

Both of these expressions of the Ascension compel me to push beyond the conventional images of this scene to the depths of the real mystery at work. Like a breath moving in and out, God moves through creation… out at Jesus’ birth… in at Jesus’ death and burial… out at the Resurrection… in at the Ascension and soon– out at Pentecost. Take a moment of silence to think about that, meditating on Christ’s movement on each of your own breaths. That is the true intimacy we share with God, always moving in us, as near as our very breath.

James Tissot, Ascension, Watercolor on vellum paper Circa 1886 – 1894, Brooklyn Museum

Salvador Dali, The Ascension of the Christ, Oil 1958, The Dali Museum

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