Understanding the Ascension Through Art

Ascension Thursday is the close of the forty day celebration of Easter.  Some dioceses have moved marking this Solemnity of this feast to Sunday.   To better celebrate the wonder and mystery of this event of salvific history, we can turn to art.

The Seventeenth Century poet John Donne tended to take an intellectual approach to spirituality in La Coruna. (1618).  The section dedicated to the Ascension offers conceits which prepares the person for acting in faith:

Salute the last, and everlasting day,
Joy at the uprising of this Sun, and Son,
Ye whose true tears, or tribulation
Have purely wash’d, or burnt your drossy clay.
Behold, the Highest, parting hence away,
Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon;
Nor doth he by ascending show alone,
But first He, and He first enters the way.
O strong Ram, which hast batter’d heaven for me!
Mild lamb, which with Thy Blood hast mark’d the path!
Bright Torch, which shinest, that I the way may see!
O, with Thy own Blood quench Thy own just wrath;
And if Thy Holy Spirit my Muse did raise,
Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise.
While Donne was raised as a Catholic, he converted to Anglicanism in his adulthood.  The verses reflect this sentiment as it uses quitessential Catholic symbols,such as light and dark, as well as the sacrifice of the innocent lamb.  But the final verse emphasizes the personal rather than communal aspect of faith.

Another distinctive feature of Donne’s literary style are his metaphysical conceits. which uses imagery in an extended metaphor to combine vastly different ideas into a single notion.  Hence, the ascension is likened to both a strong Ram to break down the door of faith to heaven and as a mild lamb in a blood sacrifice to show the path.

Three hundred and fifty years later, Salvador Dali painted “The Ascension of Christ” (1958) as Jesus is rising toward an energized and electrified heaven.

Dali’s surreal style of juxtaposing images one would not ordinarily associate in order to create a deeper meaning requires going beyond a rational exposition of faith.  But Dali’s depiction is not devoid of reality, as the prominent feet would have been the last thing that the Apostles who witness the Ascension would have seen.

Dali attributes the inspiration for “The Ascension of Christ” to a cosmic dream that he had in 1950 full of vivid color where he saw the nucleus of an atom.  Dali was an ardent atheist but he later re-embraced his Catholic faith (perhaps after an exorcism) but Dali often fused his conceptions of Christianity  with science. Dali realized that the nucleus was the true representation of the unifying spirit of Christ.  This nuclear mysticism is meant to connect everyone.

Dali’s “Ascension of Christ” does have some incongruities.  Dali was inspired by the atom but it looks like a sunflower or perhaps a stylized depictions of the sun.  Dali was often intrigued with continuous circular patterns like a sunflower floret as it followed the law of logarithmic spiral, which Dali explained to  Mike Wallace in 1958 was associated with the force of spirit in chastity.

While the dove ready to descend from the clouds seems like an allusion to the Pentecost liturgically celebrated in 10 days.  But why is Gala (Dali’s wife and artistic muse) peering out from the clouds?  In other Dalian religiously inspired paintings, Gala represented the Virgin Mary. Historically, the dormition of the Theotokis happened long after Christ’s ascension into heaven.  However,  Mary is often considered the Queen Mother of Heaven and as the resurrection transcended time and space, it could show the Mother of God weeping at her son’s departure from the Earth from her prospective place in heaven.

Other  aspects to appreciate in Dali’s depiction of Christ’s glorified body ascending to heaven is his hands and feet.  Aside from the positioning of the foot, notice how the soles of his foot were soiled, as reminders that our Messiah walked among us.  Also the Jesus’ fingers are curled, which lends some visual drama to the painting but combined with with electrified heavens hints at power.

Whether we are spoken to by Donne’s metaphysical conceits or dazzled by Dali’s depictions of nuclear mysticism, the Ascension of Christ into heaven is a foretaste of what the faithful may expect in our eventual heavenly home.

h/t:  Salvador Dali Society

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