GOING UP? ICONS OF THE ASCENSION

Today we will take a look at the the  “Ascension” type, called Voznesenie in Russia, and in Greek icons He Analepsis Η ΑΝΑΛΗΨΙC.
In the Bible, we find Ascension narratives only in the Gospel attributed to Luke and in the book of Acts.  Both are rather minimal.  There is also a very brief mention in the Gospel called “of Mark,” but it is not found in the earliest manuscripts, and is a later addition.

Here is a pleasant late Russian example of the Ascension type painted in the traditional manner:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The Church Slavic inscription reads ВОЗНЕСЕНИЕ ГОСПОДНЕ — Voznesenie Gospodne — “Ascension of the Lord.”

At both sides are Twelve Apostles, identified by inscription as “Apostles of the Lord.”  And in the center, as is common in “Ascension” icons, stands Mary.

Above is Jesus, rising into heaven in a circle of light carried by two angels.  Note that Jesus sits on a rainbow.  That element (not mentioned in the Gospels) comes from two main sources, the first being the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, chapter 1:

26 And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.

27 And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about.

28 As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.

The second source is the book of Revelation, the “Apocalypse of John”:

After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter.

And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.

And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.

What we see in this icon, then, is not the usual Western European depiction of a standing Jesus slowly rising into the clouds, but rather a depiction of Jesus raised up to the heavenly throne on which he sits and is said to come in judgment.

Here is an earlier image of the Ascension found in the Syriac Rabbula Gospels, usually dated to the 6th century, though the book as a whole may be a composite volume of more than one date.  This depiction borrows elements from Ezekiel and from the Revelation:

In it, Jesus is not seated but standing, and there is no rainbow.  There are six “standard” angels (four above, two beside Mary).  Two hold the oval in which Jesus stands, two approach Jesus with wreaths of victory, and two look toward the apostles. But just below Jesus, we see a creature with four faces, wings filled with eyes, and wheels at both sides.  This too comes from Ezekiel 1 and from the Revelation 4.  The four heads, in Eastern Orthodox tradition, symbolize the four Evangelists Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John.  The wheels, in Eastern Orthodox theology, are the rank of angel called “Thrones.”

If you look carefully to upper left and right of the image, you will see the moon and the sun depicted as living beings.  Here is the moon:

And here the sun:

If we look at the group of Apostles, we see there are twelve.  As the Gospels relate, at the time of the Ascension there were only eleven, Judas having betrayed Jesus and committed suicide.  But the Rabbula image and many later examples of the Ascension add Paul as a twelfth apostle in the type (the twelfth was actually Matthias, chosen after the Ascension and not depicted in it).  Of course the presence of Paul is an anachronism, but Eastern Orthodoxy likes to see the Ascension icon as also an image of the Church, and so we see Mary at center (also considered an image of the Church on her own), as well as those apostles later considered the two chief apostolic founders of the Church, Peter and Paul.

Here is a much later Russian example that has neither rainbow nor the symbols of the Evangelists nor “Thrones” nor Paul.  It is influenced not only by Western and less anachronistic depictions of the Ascension, but also shows the increased realism favored by the State Church in later times.  Here the three chief figures at bottom are Mary, the Apostle Peter at left, and the Apostle John at right:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Here is another Russian example, this time again painted in the traditional “stylized” manner, with much attention given to the hill from which Jesus is rising:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The Ascension type is found not only as a separate icon, but also in icons showing the Resurrection and major Church festivals.

Now the interesting thing about Ascension icons is that they perpetuate right into modern times the ancient, pre-scientific notion of a universe that has humans living on a flat earth above which is a solid firmament, and above that firmament is not only a sea but also the throne of God.  “Heaven” in traditional Jewish and Christian belief was the sky, so of course when Jesus ascends, he ascends into the sky.  Now, however, thanks to science, we know that the firmament is not a solid dome, that there is no sea above it, and no throne room of God up there, where he sits like an ancient king.  Consequently, many modern Christians, in an attempt to adapt, have begun thinking of Heaven not as the sky, but as somehow in a separate dimension.  That view, however, is not in keeping with the Ascension icons nor with biblical accounts.  But early Christians, not knowing that the earth was round, and not knowing that the earth is only a tiny particle in an immense universe, thought that all Jesus had to do to reach Heaven was to go up.  Of course “up” would take one in multiple and different directions of space, depending on where and when on the globe one went up, as the earth revolves in its path around the sun.  And we know that one can go light years (the distance light travels in a year) in any direction and not find a physical Heaven as described in the Old and New Testaments.  All this provides major problems for today’s “literalist” Christians, which is why they tend not to think about the matter.

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