Great religious art manifests the truth and very person of Jesus Christ by the various ways in which it digests, incorporates, and re-presents elements of Scripture. It is formed in the artist by a steady process of lectio divina (meditative reading of the Bible), prayer, and immersion in the liturgy (Holy Eucharist and the Divine Office). The religious artist shares with us, via the particulars of his work, the fruits of contemplation.
One of the greatest preachers with the brush is Tintoretto (1519-1594). On today’s feast –Ascension Thursday (displaced to Sunday celebration in much of America) – it’s worth exploring his painting of the Ascension of Christ (in the Scuola Grande of San Rocco in Venice), which draws us up through a symphony of biblical allusions to contemplate the fullness of the paschal mystery.
An often overlooked truth about art is that a good painting, like the liturgy and like Christian spirituality as a whole, is experienced bodily. We do not just look at it from outside; if we appreciate it properly, we move through it. Most paintings are designed to be entered from the lower border, near one of the corners. In this case, we are introduced to the scene by the foreground apostle holding a large open book; he has evidently been pondering the Scriptures.
The twist of his body, the turn of his head, and the sequence of alternating shadowed and lit planes and volumes (from book, to knee, to the other leg, to the river) all direct our gaze into a wilderness landscape where the apostles had been wandering and are now assembled. Together with the foreground apostle, we are to look at this scene from the perspective of one reading the Book.
The New Testament writers, and Christ himself, frame every event in terms of the history of salvation begun in the Hebrew Scriptures, without which we cannot understand Christ’s acts. The key event in the Old Testament is the Exodus, the departure of the Jewish people from captivity in Egypt and their journey to the Promised Land.
The apostles in Tintoretto’s canvas are reminiscent of the twelve tribes of Israel wandering in the wilderness. They have come to a riverbank. Above them Christ ascends and, at the same time, crosses over the river, moving from right to left.
This depiction, with Christ twisting as he ascends, bears several strong echoes of the account in the Book of Kings of the prophet Elijah’s transitus. Elijah crossed over the Jordan by parting the waters, just as Moses did when leading the Israelites out of Egypt, and as Joshua did when leading them into the Promised Land. Then Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind. Now Jesus, the Lord, fulfills what He Himself had foreshadowed through Moses, and through his own namesake Joshua, delivering His people from bondage and leading them into Paradise.
In contrast to the rather barren landscape below, as Christ ascends, He is surrounded by an explosion of Promised Land greenery, branches of palm and laurel borne by angels, emblems of his victorious passion. Saint Luke calls the suffering and death of Jesus an “exodus,” and Tintoretto’s painting richly testifies to the meaning this specific, inspired word opens for us.
Christ’s ascension completes his own exodus. But the implication, too, is clear: where he goes we are to follow. He is the “first fruits,” and in him our nature, including the body, is taken up. The ascending Christ we see here is fully corporeal.
Surprisingly, Tintoretto’s Christ is kneeling as he crosses over the Jordan. This unusual feature drives home still another lesson for us. Christ’s entire exodus is accomplished in obedience to the Father – which is why his suffering and death saved us. He was always, and in all things, wholly obedient to the Father. Even in His marvelous Ascension, He remains in a posture of obedience. And we too must follow Christ and strive to obey God completely, even at the cost of our lives. Sooner or later we all must pass over.
Furthermore, we Christians have already come to this riverbank, and have died and risen with Christ in baptism; we are already on the other side with Christ in His kingdom, since we are in Him and He is there.
And yet we are also still journeying in the wilderness. The apostles in the painting show us what we can do to receive strength along the way: fold our hands or cross them over our breasts in prayer; fall to our knees before the sanctuary rail (of which a rustic version is to be seen even here in the wilderness); partake of the Sacrament in which Christ remains bodily with us even as His body is also in heaven. And continually meditate upon the Holy Scriptures, for in them we find Christ, and He speaks to us.