This is from my friend Janet Laisch:
This Thursday is Ascension Day– a feast day– to celebrate the Ascension of Christ and a popular image in Christian art starting in the fourth century.
In Christ, God’s fullness has been revealed. His sacred image forever a part of our world. The Transfiguration, The Entry into Jerusalem and the Ascension of Christ are three moments of special, very public recognition of the divine nature of Christ and for this reason they were introduced into the repertoire of Christian art at the height of the Arian crisis. Arius, a priest in Alexandria, posed the problem. Arius questioned the eternal existence of the Son prior to his appearance on earth.
The Council of Nicaea was not convoked to declare Christ emperor but to declare him God—“God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.” The new focus of Christian art in the fourth century aimed at advertising this very belief—that God the Son is eternal and divine– and so an abundance of Ascension icons and grand apse mosaics resulted.
My very favorite example is a late medieval fresco which is part of Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel cycle in Padua, Italy—near Venice– dating from 1305 (see below).
To me, entering the Scrovegni Chapel is a kind of “heaven on earth” experience–every surface is covered in rich fresco paint. Standing inside the building, you are wrapped in the Biblical story. Giotto’s painting captures the Ascension of our Lord as told in Mark 16:19-20; Luke 24: 50-53; Acts: 1:9-11; John 20:17; Ephesians 4:8. In this single painting, Giotto captured multiple moments of the Gospel simultaneously.
Giotto’s image reveals the marriage of heaven and earth. We see in the upper half of the fresco, Christ surrounded by a gold mandorla and standing on a cloud, disappearing from human view. Christ’s outstretched fingers are outside the picture plane–outside of our human view– though we know these fingers still exist even though we cannot see them. The cloud is not Giotto’s invention but from scripture–scripture of this very event and from many Old Testament accounts including Exodus where the cloud symbolizes God.
The cloud, then, realizes God’s presence at this event. Jesus’ ascension into the cloud, according to Benedict, does not mean that Christ was transferred to some “remote region of the cosmos,” but rather that He entered “into the mystery of God.” We are told through the Bible that we too will at Christ’s Second Coming enter into this cloud and become one with the mystery of God. The mandorla or almond shaped space in Christian art represents the uncreated light of Christ, reminding us that Christ like the Father and the Spirit are as John states, existing before the creation of the world. Christ is eternal.
Rather than set up a dichotomy between heaven and earth, Giotto painted the blue background to marry the upper and lower halves of the picture and multiple points and spaces in time. We see simultaneously the realm of “appearance” and the realm of “true reality”; we see simultaneously the fleeting earth and the permanent heaven. As onlookers, we watch as Christ disappears from human’s ability to view Him.
We see simultaneously as the angels inform the disciples and Mary to stop looking for Christ and begin the work they have been trained to do and Christ standing on the cloud of God. Giotto depicts eleven disciples and Mary each kneeling in reference to our Lord. Each person is ordained with a halo reminding us that because Christ came down to earth, he taught us how to be fully human and also how to be fully divine. The halos denote not their status as the one true God but as part of His divinity in future time.
Giotto’s art reminds us of the importance of our experiences here on Earth because unlike earlier artists he conveys what it means to be fully human. Human emotion and individuality are important features of Giotto’s work that differ from earlier Medieval artists. Giotto first used chiaroscuro or modeling of light and dark to depict the disciples and Mary as three dimensional human figures. Breaking from tradition, Giotto strives to convey a sense of space by layering the figures one in front of the other. Kneeling in prayer, they are grounded rather than floating so there is a sense of earth’s gravitational pull.
Long considered the father of Renaissance art, he painted a simplified stage space: brown rocks connote earth. Giotto included only the needed details and nothing more. Christ’s Ascension and the people who will become the Church at Pentecost are the subject—other details are not needed or included. His interest is to paint a reality so that we can learn and identify with the image depicting a sacred event.
The earth is where these early Christians kneel and the base which will become the Church—God’s will on earth.
Having been inside this very chapel, I am reminded that heaven and earth should not be understood as a dichotomy. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is not a prayer that we might escape from the earth, but rather that earth and heaven might come together. This prayer describes how the Ascension and Pentecost are linked: in the Ascension, part of earth moves into the heavenly sphere, and at Pentecost, part of heaven — the Holy Spirit — invades the earth.
We must not forget: the Holy Spirit resides here permanently. In Giotto’s image, as in most Ascension iconography, angels appear to Mary and the disciples just after Jesus’ departure. The angels say, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” It is our time now, under the influence of Christ’s Holy Spirit, that we must get to work! As followers of Christ, we must foster this marriage of heaven and earth. We grow the mission of the church and in so doing we become fully alive in Christ.
That Christ once lived on earth among us, our relationship with Christ is everlasting. Not even death, nor tragedy nor disease can separate us from this marriage.
The Marriage of Heaven and Earth–may no one pull asunder.