|The Ascension of Christ
Jesus is "taken up into heaven" in the Ascension narratives in Mark 16:19-20 (cached), Luke 24:50-53 (cached), and Acts 1:6-12 (cached).
The Syriac illumination at left is an early example of what became in the west the most common way of representing this event. Christ is in a mandorla on a chariot, attended by angels, facing the viewer. Below, the Virgin Mary stands in the center flanked by two angels, who apparently are addressing to the apostles the words in Acts 1:11, "Ye men of Galilee, why stand you looking up to heaven?"
Kessler suggests that the chariot refers to a reading for Ascension Day in the Syriac liturgy from Ezekiel 1 (cached). A Syrian ampulla of the same century, however, has all the elements seen at left except the chariot. There is also a quite similar 6th-century Palestinian icon with all but the chariot. Perhaps the mandorla functions visually as a signifier of the chariot.
In any case, a great many western Ascension images adapt the pattern seen in the Syrian image, dispensing with the chariot and sometimes with one or two other details. Thus, Perugino's Ascension omits the two angels on the ground but adds St. Paul. A Florentine illumination from the 14th century has St. Paul but no angels at all. In Renaissance and Baroque images Christ ascends through clouds under his own power rather than borne by angels (example). This seems to reflect the mood of the times, as well as the Golden Legend's firm insistence on self-portation:
And also St. John [3:13] saith: "No man ascendeth into heaven by his own puissance and might, but the Son of Man that is in heaven." And how be it that he ascended in a cloud, he had none need, but because that he would show that every creature is ready to serve his creator, he ascended in his proper virtue.
In a tympanum at Vezelay we see a space-saving variation on this basic pattern. It is Christ, rather than Mary, who raises his hands in orant position as he stands in the center of the apostles.
A related type of Ascension image expresses the motion of ascent by having the apostles look up toward the upper edge of the image, where all but the lower part of Christ's feet has passed out of view (example).
In making the suggestion about the chariot, Kessler noted that during the 6th century western liturgies for the Ascension featured not Ezekiel 1 but Moses' ascent to the mountaintop in Exodus 19:16-25 (cached), and that western Ascension images seem to follow this text in making Christ's ascent look more like the climbing of a mountain. Thus, a 4th-century ivory plaque shows him in profile ascending what could as easily be a mountain as a bank of clouds. This Christ-in-profile model continues to influence western Ascension images -- for example in an ivory plaque from the 11th century and, in the 14th, both of Giotto's Ascension frescoes at Assisi and in the Arena Chapel.
Feast day: Forty days after Easter
At left, Syriac illumination from the 6th century
15th century painting with unusual features
Kessler, Introduction to “The Christian Realm: Narrative Representations” (Weitzmann, p. 454)