Ascension of the Lord
(Russia; seventeenth century)
Russia; seventeenth century; 89 x 72 cm
Feast: Fortieth day after Passover
History of the feast
On the fortieth day after the Passover, the Church celebrates the event of the Ascension of the Lord. The oldest known reference dating back to the end of the fourth century is the narration of the pilgrim Eteria, who states that on the fortieth day after the Passover the Ascension was celebrated, not in Jerusalem, however, but in Bethlehem, in the Cave of the Nativity. Although the mystery of the Ascension was one of the truths professed in all the symbols of faith from the first centuries, its celebration was still part of a paschal cycle that ended on the fiftieth day. It was established in the third century, culminating in the Feast of the Descent of the Holy Spirit – the fiftieth day, but at that time the Feast of the Ascension was not yet a separate feast. It was a separate feast spread in various churches in the period between the fifth – sixth centuries.
The basis of the feast, as well as its iconographic representation, is provided by the texts of the Scriptures describing this event. The evangelist Luke describes this event as follows: “And He led them (apostles) out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. Now it came to pass, while He blessed them, that He was parted from them and carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24:50-51)
The oldest known depictions of the Ascension include a relief scene on the door of the Church of St. Sabina in Rome from the fifth century, relief scenes on ampoules (oil containers) from Monza and Bobbio, dating from the second half of the sixth century brought by pilgrims from the Holy land, as well as a miniature in the early Christian Rabbula Syrian gospel book from 586.
The composition of the Ascension icon usually consists of two parts. Christ Pantocrator can be seen in the mandorla at the top, with two angels ascending to heaven, in his eternal glory. This part of the icon is a symbol of the divine realm – heaven. The Blessed Virgin is standing in the position of a praying Oranta with her arms raised at the bottom part of the icon, down on the earth, this being a symbol of the terrestrial world. The Mother of God stands in the midst of assembled apostles, looking at Christ ascending to heaven. Two angels in white robes, pointing to Christ ascending to heaven, are depicted at her sides.
Description of the icon
At the top of the icon, under the inscription “Image of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ,” there is God the Father – Sabaoth, awaiting the return of the Son to heaven, indicated by clouds with the sun and moon. The naturalism in the depiction of the clouds, as well as the figure of God the Father, is the result of the influence of Western Baroque art, as we do not encounter this in older icons of this feast.
The figure of Jesus Christ, in the heavenly realms with angels, is in the centre of the icon. This depiction points to the fact that Christ no longer belongs to this world because he has already fulfilled his mission on earth. By his death on the cross and his glorious resurrection, he redeemed the human race from sin and the dominion of the devil, and therefore he is returning to heaven, from which he descended at the time he was conceived in the womb of the Mother of God in Nazareth and was born as a child in Bethlehem. Christ is not standing on the ground and his figure is considerably smaller than the figures of the apostles below him. During His earthly dwelling, Jesus was one of us. He became like us in everything but sin. This shade of time has passed, however, forever. Christ is therefore no longer depicted in the midst of the apostles, as is the case with icons depicting the events of His life on earth, but is separated from the apostles. The glorified Christ, which is also accentuated by his radiant white robe covered with golden rays (unlike on most icons, where he is depicted in a red-blue combination), has already ascended into eternity, into the world of God, from which he descended at the time of the Incarnation. He is depicted sitting on a stage of glory, in light clothing, illuminated by golden thin rays (assistos), which is a symbolic expression of divine forces – energies. He is the Omni-Ruler – Pantocrator. He has his right hand raised in a blessing gesture, holding a scroll in his left hand as a sign of his teaching on earth. The entire figure of Christ is bordered by a mandorla, a circle that is a symbolic representation of the celestial sphere. This halo - mandorla is a symbolic depiction of a cloud, the place of God's presence in the Old Testament, both during the Exodus and on Mount Sinai, or in the New Testament on Mount Tabor during the Transfiguration. The entire depiction of Christ on the icon of the Ascension is like the sun, the sun of truth, burning on earth. The heavenly realm with Christ depicted in the middle is held by the hands of four angels. There are also angels with clarions who greet Christ ascending to heaven. The other two angels are not in heaven, but on the Mount of Olives between Christ and the apostles, the Mother of God, the women and hosts of people. Their bright white robes are in stark contrast to the dark garments of the apostles. These are the angels whom the Scripture speaks of: “two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:10-11)
The most holy Mother of God is at the bottom of the icon, amidst the apostles and angels. Her presence in the midst of the apostles on the Mount of Olives is confirmed by the tradition of the Church, as we read in Scripture that Mary spent time with the apostles after they had returned from Jerusalem: “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey. And when they had entered, they went up into the upper room where they were staying: Peter, James, John, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot; and Judas the son of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.” (Acts 1:12-14)
Paul Evdokimov writes about the placement of the Mother of God in the midst of angels and apostles: “She is the predestined centre in which the angelic world and the earthly world meet.” She, as the new Eve, is a fore-image of the Church, and therefore is depicted under Christ. This importance is also confirmed by the liturgical song Dignified is, where we laud the Mother of God with these words: “It is dignified to glorify you, Mother of God, always blissful and immaculate Mother of our God. More honest than cherubim and incomparably more famous than seraphim, you gave birth to God the Word, the true Mother of God, we glorify you.” The Mother of God is Oranta, she intercedes before God for us as our supporter. She is immersed in prayer with her arms raised, sometimes with her arms crossed over her chest, a gesture of her faith, acceptance and submission to God's will.
To the left and right of the Mother of God there are, atypically for this icon, depicted two women, probably women with the myrrh. Behind the figures of the women are two groups of apostles, being divided into six and six in most icons of this feast. In the case of this icon, there are six apostles on the left but seven on the right – this group of apostles is supplemented by the apostle Paul, who was not one of the twelve apostles and was not present during the event of Christ's ascension, as he had not yet converted and was still persecuting Christians. So why is he a part of this icon? The answer lies in the fact that the icon does not offer us a chronologically accurate historical testimony of the feast but conveys its spiritual essence. At the Ascension, the apostles are assembled with the Mother of God as the seed of the nascent Christian Church, the communion of all, united in faith, with a desire for salvation, both the Church glorified and the Church suffering and wandering. This is why the proclaimer of God's word, the apostle Paul, appears on the icon.
The dynamic depiction of the apostles' figures points to their mission – to proclaim the only truth in many ways. This is also accentuated by the multi-coloured robes, which reflect the multi-coloured garment of God's bride, the Church, and thus express the unity of the multitude according to the image of a single one, which is projected into the three who unite in one. Some of the apostles are calmer and embody contemplation. All the apostles, together with the Mother of God, represent the mission of the Church – prayer and the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ.
The event takes place on the Mount of Olives, which represents a kind of imaginary border between two worlds – heaven and earth. The branches of the depicted olive trees cross this border. This is not a coincidence, however, but the intention by which the icon expresses that nature itself participates in the cosmic liturgy, where God, in his goodness and love, bends down to the world he created and the world goes to meet its King. It is also a symbolic expression of the fact that the Church remains on the rocky ground of the Mount of Olives. Its works, which are symbolized by olive trees, are already bearing fruit in heaven.