Pietro Perugino, The Ascension of Christ, 1495-98, Musée des beaux-arts, Lyon.
Today is the Feast of the Ascension, forty days after Easter, when Jesus went up into Heaven – Jesus himself makes three references to it, before it has happened, in the Gospel of St John, and it is described in both the Gospel of St Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. This is what is says in Luke 24, verses 50-51:
And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.
When Pietro Perugino came to paint this event for the Benedictine monks of San Pietro, just outside the walls of Perugia, he chose to show Jesus doing just as Luke says, still in the act of lifting up his hands and blessing them. But he also chose to paint fourteen people standing on the ground, which intrigues me. Luke does not say how many people were there, although the Ascension follows on, with a few intervening episodes, from the Supper at Emmaus (Picture Of The Day 30), after which the two pilgrims went and found ‘the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them’. That was, theoretically, forty days before the Ascension, according to the Acts of the Apostles, which likewise does not specify who was there, but the ‘eleven’ mentioned by Luke were the remaining apostles, given that Judas had committed suicide. So how come there are fourteen here? Are the other three ‘them that were with them’?
The central figure is, of course, the Virgin Mary. There is nothing in the Bible to say that she was there – but then, there is no reason to suppose that she wouldn’t be, and it became a standard part of the iconography of the Ascension (i.e. the way that it is depicted) to include her. And, being Mary, she must be in the middle. She looks up towards her son, although she is awkwardly placed to do so, as her halo appears to be in front of the mandorla (the almond-shaped glory – see POTD 42) within which Christ stands. The Apostles have given her space, making her more prominent, and her head stands out clearly against the pale sky behind her. Perugino has painted a typical Umbrian bowl landscape (an idea he would pass on to Raphael – see POTD 23), with the horizon level to the right and left, and curving down in the centre, just like a bowl: it frames Mary’s head perfectly. The detail of this landscape is enchanting. Delicately picked out to the left of the Virgin’s right shoulder is a small town with turrets, towers and a domed church, and there is another chapel on a distant hill. Standing next to Mary, to our left, we see a man in yellow and blue, with short grey hair and beard, holding a key – this is St Peter, in his typical colours, and he is holding the key to the kingdom of Heaven. To our right of Mary, with a long dark beard and receding hairline, wearing a red cloak and holding a sword, is St Paul. That is, figuratively, a two-edged sword – it represents both his persecution of the Christians as Saul, and also, his own martyrdom by beheading. The only problem with St Paul being there is that the Ascension happened in Acts chapter 1, whereas Saul was not converted until chapter 9 – so he shouldn’t be there yet. The painting is clearly a ‘statement’, rather than a narrative, and shows us the status he would later have as one of the two leaders of the Church after Christ.
The formal, symmetrical arrangement – with everyone facing front – is a clue to that. None of them are really in a good position to see Jesus, and only two have shifted to get a better view. On the left, an apostle in red and green has his back to us, and looks up at Jesus: he is a repoussoir, and is there to make us look into the picture, and up to Jesus. On our right, the man in yellow and blue closes off the composition, and redirects our attention back into the painting. In case we weren’t feeling entirely present, two of the apostles are looking out at us, just to make sure that we are paying attention (they are examples of Alberti’s ‘chorus’ figure – POTD 32). But even with the unwarranted – but symbolic – addition of Paul, and the understandable inclusion of Mary, there is still one person too many. The last must be St Matthias, appointed to replace Judas – but even that shouldn’t work, as he wasn’t chosen until the end of Chapter 1, and the Ascension is towards the beginning. This just goes to confirm the suggestion that this painting is not a simple ‘narrative’, but a theological statement about the implications of the Ascension, in which the presence of the apostles, with the addition of Mary and Paul, is vital. It basically represents Jesus saying ‘now over to you’. The monastery for which this was painted was dedicated to St Peter, who has precedent among the other figures here, as he does in Giotto’s Last Judgement (POTD 38), given that he stands at the right hand of God – or, as Jesus has now ‘gone up’, at the right hand of the Mother of God. As all popes claim their authority from Jesus’ charge to Peter – ‘And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ – the painting is an essential statement about the nature of the papacy and, if we include the apostles, the priesthood. Basically, this painting represents the beginning of ‘The Church’.
The upward gazes of the people on the ground are essential, as otherwise there is nothing to connect them with everything in the sky. Mary’s halo may overlap the mandorla, and her head might be in front of the sky – but the men have their feet firmly on the ground, and their heads are in front of the distant hills. Only Peter’s arm reaches up, otherwise Earth and Heaven are separate. Even the lowest angels have their feet poised delicately on tiny clouds some way above the horizon – they then lean precipitously far forward, looking down to the onlookers and pointing up. How do you communicate a sense of movement in something so balanced and orderly? You point. Their gestures tell us to look up to Jesus, and also that Jesus himself is heading upwards. If we didn’t get the hint, then we can read their scrolls, waving like ribbons, both of which carry inscriptions relating to the Ascension. Or we could, if we had the time…
Four angels at the top of the painting stand on slightly more substantial clouds, playing music to accompany Christ’s departure. He stands within the mandorla, his right foot planted firmly on a cloud, and his left resting delicately, if slightly comically, on the head of a cherub, his big toe curving comfortably round its scalp. He wears the most striking red robe – this is hardly the shroud-cum-toga we have seen before (e.g. POTD 24 & 25), although it does remind me of the surprising red loincloth in Raphael’s Mond Crucifixion (POTD 23). Maybe it was an Umbrian thing, but it certainly refers to the Byzantine use of the Imperial purple – Jesus is King, after all.
Perugino is never given enough credit. Look at the angel on our left, playing the harp. The foreshortening on that harp is breathtaking. And look at the shadow of his plucking hand on the wooden frame. He was very good. The mandorla, too, is beautifully constructed, and seems to be made of concentric rainbows. The colours are not in the right order, and green seems to predominate, but notice how the colours are reversed – this is exactly what happens with a double rainbow – I feel sure that Perugino must have seen one. But why a rainbow? I suspect it might be something to do with the account of the Ascension in the Acts of the Apostles. This is Acts 1:9-11:
…while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.
I love the idea that, after he’d had gone, they were still standing, staring into the sky in disbelief, and then two angels came along and told them off… They then also said that he would come back, ‘in like manner as you have seen him go’. There is, of course, a description of Jesus’ return in the Book of Revelation. In chapter 4 verse 3 it says, ‘and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald’. So, if he is going to come as he went, he must have gone surrounded by a rainbow ‘like unto an emerald’ – which might just explain the predominance of green.
Luke says of Jesus, ‘he lifted up his hands, and blessed them’ – and that is precisely what he is doing. Both hands are raised – you can see the wounds from the nails in each – and while the right is blessing, the left points in the direction of travel. This could be an explanation to the onlookers or an instruction for the angels – but it also ensures that we know where to look next. And that is at the painting which was – and fortunately still is – above this one.
Jesus is pointing up to his Father – who is looking down, also blessing, while peering through a dark blue ring. I suspect various untoward things have happened to this painting in the past. Indeed, I know they have. If I could get into a library and find the right book, I could look it up, but I suspect there was an additional framing element around God, and the dark blue represents its absence, with clouds added on, and the wings of cherubim extended to disguise the fact that something is missing. The Ascension was originally part of a polyptych with fifteen panels – this lunette was above the Ascension, there were two prophets in roundels, one on either side, and eleven predella panels running along the bottom. All but one of these survive, scattered between the Vatican and various French museums. It was broken up when the choir of San Pietro in Perugia was restructured in the 16th Century, although the paintings remained within the monastery, only to be ‘requisitioned’ by Napoleon’s troops many years later. However, in 1816, after Waterloo, they were due to go back to the Pope – but Pius VII decided he would give them to Lyon, in gratitude to the City for its kindnesses in years gone by.
This is how the two panels in Lyon are exhibited today. The frame is relatively recent, as the lunette spent some time in Paris, and only returned to Lyon in 1952, but there is no doubt that the two panels should be seen in this configuration. The central axis, from Mary through Jesus and up to God, is of prime importance, as is the sense of ceremony evoked by the symmetry of the composition, and by its planar disposition. The arrangement of the angels in the sky in particular is like a filigree screen, although there are subtle, and telling, variations in depth. Mary stands in front of Peter and Paul, who are further forward than the other apostles – with the exception of the two framing figures, who funnel our attention inwards and up. Around Jesus, the two lower angels are in front of the mandorla, whereas the four musicians are further back, a subtlety of placement that contradicts our initial sense that everything is on one plane. It makes the whole thing shimmer, a magical vibration that disrupts the fabric of time. Here is some music to listen to while you look: Ascending into Heaven, by Judith Weir.