Savior’s Day – Ascension of Christ in Orthodox iconography

The Ascension of Christ represents the fulfillment of the cycle of Salvation: conception, birth, suffering, crucifixion and resurrection. At the same time, it is a confirmation of the dogma of the double, God-man nature of Christ, as well as one of the basic proofs that the goal of Christ’s coming to earth was the salvation of mankind. The Ascension is also Theophany, because the second hypostasis of the Holy Trinity was visibly revealed to the people.

In relation to other New Testament Theophanies (Epiphany, Transfiguration), the Ascension is only mentioned in a few sentences in the canonical Gospels of Mark (Mark 16:19) and Luke (Luke 24: 50-53), and then in the Acts of the Apostles. . 1, 9-12) attributed to Luke.They laconically say “ascended into heaven,” without any other explanation.

The Ascension of Christ in the dome of the Belgrade temple of Saint Sava

Three iconographic types

According to the Holy Scriptures, the place of Christ’s Ascension was the Mount of Olives, where he uttered eschatological words about the end of time, and then left his disciples. This event took place 40 days after the Resurrection, which parallels the Old Testament story of the great flood that lasted 40 days on earth (Gen. 7:17). Also, this period is reminiscent of the 40 days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai when he received the tables of the Law (Exodus 34:28).

Forty is the number of expectations, preparations and trials, and it also signifies the fulfillment of one cycle which does not signify continuation, but radical change, a different dimension of action and life. According to the beliefs of a large number of peoples, it is also the necessary period for the soul to be free from the body.

The iconography of the Ascension is based on canonical writings and church heritage from Paleo-Christian times, taking as a model the apotheosis of ancient heroes who go to Olympus. In depicting this event, we can observe three types: Hellenistic, Syrian and Byzantine. The Hellenistic account is based on the end of the Gospel of John, where Christ ascends the hill followed by Peter and John (John 21: 19-20). This motif has been known since the 5th century and does not exist in the catacombs. We probably owe John’s 21st chapter to copyists, and it does not exist in the two oldest books of the New Testament, the Vatican and the Sinai Codex, which date from the 4th century.

The other two variants differ in several details, although they generally follow the scheme of the scene divided into two parts: the upper part where Christ is and the lower part where the Mother of God with the apostles is.

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Central motif of the Ascension of Christ, Patriarchate of Peja, Serbia, mid-13th century

The composition of the Ascension

Christ is surrounded by a mandorla, oval or round, which represents his divine emanation. The oval shape is older than the circular one and we find it already in 5/6. century on ampoules from Monza. Also, the illumination from the Syrian gospel of the monk Rabula, dated around 586, depicts Christ in an oval mandorla. This shape symbolizes the “egg of the world”, the creation of the Universe, while the circle signifies perfection.

Mandorla can be held by angels (Rabula’s gospel), but that does not mean that they ascended Christ, because he ascended himself, by his divine power. An ivory diptych from the 5th century, now kept in the Bayer National Museum in Munich, depicts Christ coming out of the tomb and raised to heaven by the Father’s hand coming out of the clouds. Also, at the door of the Basilica of Saint Sabina, from the 5th century, angels ascend Christ.

All these depictions were forbidden by Pope Gregory I (590-604), because Christ ascended without anyone’s help. However, these performances appeared in Orthodox iconography until the 11th century.

The angels holding the mandorla of the Lord emphasize his glory, appearing as servants of God. It is also possible to see angels surrounding the mandorla, but not touching it. They are in prayer positions with their hands humbly covered with mapulas. Some are shown blowing trumpets, which is related to Psalm 46 (Ps. 46: 6) and David’s prophecy.

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Ascension of Christ, Russian icons, 16th century, Novgorod and Pskov

The eschatological meaning of the Ascension

The Syrian type of the Ascension depicts the Lord standing up, while in Byzantine art, Christ sits on a throne or, since the 9th century, on a rainbow that is a sign of the covenant between God and man (Gen. 9: 12-17). In his left hand he holds a gospel or scroll and blesses with his right hand. This sign of blessing is an act of transmitting spirituality and supernatural power to the apostles so that they may continue Christ’s mission (Acts 1: 8).

The upper part of the icon, where the Lord is in glory, at the same time announces Christ the Great Judge, that is, the central composition of the Last Judgment, where he is shown in the same position. This is not accidental, but an eschatological vision based on the Second Coming of Christ. That is why, in the Syrian variants, it is possible to meet two apocalyptic signs, the sun and the moon. Sometimes, the gates of Paradise are shown above Christ, which is based on the 23rd Psalm of David (Ps. 23: 7-10), which is directly related to one liturgical passage of the litany. It is another link between Old Testament prophecy and the life of Christ.

The second part of the icon, the lower part, shows a group of apostles in the center of which is the Mother of God. The presence of the Mother of God is not mentioned in the canonical scriptures, but it exists in the church tradition:

“Rejoice, Mother of our Lord, for with the apostles you saw him go to Paradise” (9th Ode to the Canon). It is shown in the vertical axis of Christ and is in a prayerful, plowing position. The Mother of God is surrounded by apostles divided into two groups. Their positions are different and very alive, which is in great contrast to the Mother of God, who is completely immobile.

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Ascension of Christ, Greek icon, 17th century; Melkite icon, 17th century, Yousef Al-Musafer of Aleppo

Heavenly and earthly Church

The meaning of this group is liturgical and symbolizes the Church, in the spiritual sense, which is beautifully expressed through several details. St. Paul is present, although, according to historical records, he was not among the apostles during Christ’s earthly life (Acts 8-9). Also, Matthias was chosen among the apostles after Christ’s Ascension (Acts 1: 23-26), because Judas Iscariot killed himself the same morning when Christ was condemned (Matthew 27: 1-5). Thus, the Mother of God became the symbol of the temple of the incarnate Word, the personification of the Church of the body of the Lord (Eph. 1: 22-23). Her prayerful attitude points to the role of the Church as a link with the Lord through prayer and purity. From the 14th century, in Byzantium, the Mother of God was depicted with her hands down, which suggested spiritual harmony and balance.

The apostles, who see the Mother of God and Christ, complete this personification and, at the same time, continue the teaching of the Lord – establishing the role of the Church and preparing for the Second Coming of Christ. This eschatological attitude is also emphasized by the presence of two angels next to the Mother of God, who point to Christ, reminding him that he will return in the same way as he ascended to heaven (Acts 1:11). We find them for the first time on a fresco in Bavit, Egypt, and that detail belongs to a Syrian source.

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Ascension of Christ, Russian icon, 19th century

The area in which the event takes place is the Mount of Olives (Acts 1: 11-12), a hill east of Jerusalem that has been considered a holy place since ancient Israel (2 Sam. 15: 30-32 / Ezek. 11:23). ). On one of its southern slopes, Solomon had stelae and holy pillars erected in honor of Astrata, Chemosh, and Milcom. Then Josiah, king of Judah, had it all destroyed (2 Kings 23:13). The place of the Ascension, the Mount of Olives, is also inseparable from the most important dramatic events of Holy Week.

The Ascension of the Lord is an event whose meaning is liturgical, apologetic and didactic, and is therefore rich in parallels with the Old Testament. Numerous coincidences, prefigurations and typological elements testify to this: the ascension of Enoch (Gen. 5:24), the ascension of Elijah (2 Kings 11-13), the song of Moses before death (Deuteronomy 32:11), God addresses the people (Isa. 66, 1) and several psalms of David. All these elements, whose meaning is eschatological, make the Ascension one of the most important acts of the Lord, and also one of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church.


Source: Balkan Magazin – Aktuelnosti by www.balkanmagazin.net.

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