Thursday 25 May 2017

Two Ascensions

Today is Ascension Day (and, as it happens, my late father's 108th birthday).
 The Ascension of Christ has proved a challenging subject for painters, involving as it does a two-tier composition, with Earth and astonished disciples below, Heaven and the ascending Christ above. This posed no particular problems for artists working in the Byzantine tradition of flat, two-dimensional picture space. But to present the scene naturalistically, in the three-dimensional world of Renaissance and later art, was more difficult.
 The picture above, by Perugino, tackles the problem by presenting what is essentially a static, two-dimensional image of the scene, but with each element painted naturalistically, the figures rounded and lit as if in three-dimensional space. The image is so patterned and tightly structured that it could almost be a stained-glass window. Note those formal, symmetrical angels and that mandorla of cherubim heads around Christ. But note too the shadows on the ground and that lovely Umbrian landscape in the blue distance.
 For a completely different approach, consider the picture below, a modello by Tiepolo (probably G.B. and his son G.D. working together, as they often did). Air was Tiepolo's element, and skies - skies peopled with dramatically posed figures in ravishing colours - were his forte; no one painted ceilings with such convincing pictorial depth, or rather height, and his clouds are as eloquent and perfectly placed as his figures. Jesus ascending into clouds, to his disciples' astonishment, was a subject that came naturally to him (as did the Assumption of the Virgin, which he painted many times). His version of the Ascension might lack religious intensity, but as a piece of masterly painting there's no arguing with it.

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