Thursday, May 09, 2013

The Mysterious Rising Feet

The Ascension, by Albrecht Duerer
Today is, of course, the Ascension of Our Lord.  Don't forget to extinguish your paschal candles!

There are a number of ways to illustrate the Ascension.  Most do not satisfy us, much as the story itself does not satisfy us.  As a lifelong reader of superhero comics, Father A. shies away from the image of Jesus flying superman-style into the clouds.  It was, we do not doubt, a compelling image for the ancients.  But to us, now, it seems ... well, comic-booky.  Fine for an imaginary Kryptonian, but not really mysterious enough for God.   Infra dig, as the prep school kids say.

In the church we attended as a child, there was an exceptionally ill-advised Ascension, hung against the west wall.  Jesus, in a very full robe, stands in the pinkish clouds, surrounded by the little disembodied heads of infants, each with wings sprouting from their necks.  Cherubim, of course.  But creepy little guillotined cherubim.  The painting was known among the faithful as "Severed Heads."

From a breviary
What we like better is the tradition of depicting the Lord's feet, rising up out of the frame, while the Apostles gaze upward in surprise.

It's a sight gag, at one level.  There;'s no denying that it's funny, if only because it is so unique.  We chuckle every time we see it.

But at another level, it is a way of making the image less absurd; we do not have to imagine Jesus gradually disappearing from view like a rocket, or surrounded by poofy pastel clouds and angels bearing Counter-Reformation drapery.

At the deepest level, a "feet-only" Ascension helps us to focus our attention upon the wounds of the Crucified, and upon the astonished expressions of the Apostles.  (In fact, the great oversight of Dali's version is that the Apostles are left out.)

1 comment:

Mark C. Christianson said...

I have to wonder if the story itself isn't a bit comic-bookish to begin with. The story is an attempt to understand something that can't really be shoehorned into our regular experience of the world as it is around us, ancient or modern, something that defies physical description. I've often wondered if we were to write the biblical text in our context today, might it have more in common with some science fiction than what the ancient text says.

As an aside, the image in the church you grew up in sounds very much like the image in the front of my church as an adult, although it has Christ in a seated position a la a Sunday-schoolized, blond-haired, blue-eyed Pantocrator. It makes me cringe.