The Ascension: ‘A glorious moment in the life of Jesus’

"Sansepolcro Altarpiece" by Perugino (circa 1446/1452–1523). Photo: Vittoria Garibaldi: "Perugino." Silvana, Milano 2004/Public Domain
“Sansepolcro Altarpiece” by Perugino (circa 1446/1452–1523). Photo: Vittoria Garibaldi: “Perugino.” Silvana, Milano 2004/Public Domain

One biblical event that has always astonished me is the Ascension. I remember when I first learned about it when I was young, I couldn’t help being struck by how sad it made me feel. Jesus, who had died a horrible death, had just returned from the dead and reunited with his family and friends.

Now he had to go back. To my young self, it almost was if he was dying again. Why was this happening? Did his disciples similarly think about how unfair it was? I couldn’t have been the only one to feel this way.

While there may certainly be some sad elements to Jesus’ return to heaven, most people don’t see it that way. In fact, Christians often look at the Ascension as being a glorious moment in the life of Jesus. As such, it has been a favorite subject of Christian artists for centuries.

This painting, the Sansepolcro Altarpiece, which is found in the Cathedral of Sansepolcro, in the Tuscany region of central Italy, is an example of many other pieces of art depicting the Ascension. Perugino, the Italian Renaissance artist who painted this piece, is known to have created several others depicting the same subject.

As in other depictions of the Ascension, the painting is divided in two planes: the terrestrial world, which Jesus is leaving, and the celestial one. Jesus is enveloped in a mandorla, an almond-shaped frame used in traditional Christian art that has the same function as a halo, but instead surrounds the whole body of the holy person.

Notably, it is the Virgin Mary who connects the two planes, as her head is depicted as almost touching the mandorla. This not only signifies her holiness, but her connection to Jesus and his link to the two worlds.

Besides Christ and Mary, there are various other figures who are depicted. In the celestial plane, we see various angels with instruments, celebrating the return of Jesus to heaven. In the mandorla, Christ is surrounded by cherubim and seraphim, angelic beings which, according to Medieval Christian theology, are the caretakers of God’s throne.

In the lower plane, various saints are depicted with the Virgin Mary, including the Twelve Apostles. These figures can be identified through various symbols which traditionally represent them. For example, St. Peter is depicted holding the keys to the Church and St. John with his book. St. Paul, who is traditionally depicted with a sword, is notably not looking upward to Christ’s ascension. This was done to show that he was not present during the Ascension. All of these figures are depicted in a typical Umbrian landscape, Perugino’s region of origin in Italy.

Besides the Sansepolcro Altarpiece, there are many other pieces of art created during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance depicting the Ascension that adopt many of the same themes, including showing both heaven and earth and having the Virgin Mary in the center of the group of apostles, looking up at the ascending Lord.

In all these paintings, the angels and disciples are shown rejoicing. One can see this artistic tradition in both Western and Eastern Christian art, from many centuries.

Seeing all these different depictions has shown me that both the Church and people throughout history have viewed the Ascension not as a sad event in which Jesus leaves us behind as I had originally believed, but instead as a defining moment showing the glory and power of the Lord, an event where Jesus “was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19).

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