Day of Ascension Art Interpretations

Author: Adrian Williams
May 21, 2020

Today, we celebrate Ascension Day, traditionally observed on the fortieth day of Easter. For a novel observance, we take a walk through a virtual "Ascension Museum," with works of art depicting the event. Our Director of Education Ministries, "A" Williams, and William & Mary interns Brittany Young and Emily Hirnshaw provide some of their interpretations of the art. What do you see?

A Monument to Jubilee and God’s Ascension in Benin placed near the “Gate of No Return” along the slave trade route there.

Brittany: This monument stands in contrast to many other representations of Ascension because it does not feature an illustration of a human-bodied Jesus rising into the clouds, but instead an empty, broken space around a cross and a triangle beaming down. This makes sense in understanding the context of the monument along a slave trade route. The artistic decision to not represent a physical Jesus emphasizes the spirit being freed from the body and pains of life much like the enslaved people this physical location represents.

Emily: It is interesting to me how the people seem to face the cross, but their hands are connected to the triangle, which I interpret to represent the Ascension.

“A”: I like that while the cross seems to try to bridge the empty space, the rays from God (Ascending/Triangle) reach through regardless of the void.

Part of an installation of public art connecting Faith and Science in Kansas City by J.Norton that speaks to ideas of Heaven and Ascension.

Brittany: This illustration reminds me of a favorite television series called The 100. The god-like military leaders come to power through an Ascension ceremony in which their mind connects to past leaders through technology. Two groups of people come to a mutual understanding of the ways science influenced religion in the community, and vice versa. I think this is an important takeaway from the show: religion and science can be two ways to understand the same phenomenon.

Emily: Faith and science!

“A”: A look at how we continue to strive to reclaim our place in Eden, yet God showed us how to do good by coming down to our place on earth.

Part of a sculpture on copper (a traditional style of art) showing the Ascension and Pentecost at St. Josephs in Hanoi Vietnam

Brittany: One striking element in this sculpture is the lone man kneeling in prayer before the Ascending Christ. The others stand in confusion and anguish with hands reaching out as though they are protesting or begging for Jesus to stay physically present. This artistic decision demonstrates a different response to a traumatic and confusing event for the disciples. I think it’s important to represent that grief sometimes presents quietly during catastrophic changes.

Emily: Once again, I see the symbolism of people not looking at the figure ascending, but rather looking at each other as they pray.

“A”: The diversity of struggle, those who seek an enlightenment and those who shout into the unknown. Also the connection between Asencion and Pentecost seems clear here.

Mysteries of the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ by Antonio Campi in the Louvre Museum

Brittany: I appreciate how the nighttime scene connects with the confusion and loneliness the disciples are experiencing during the Ascension. Jesus left them alone and in the dark of an imperfect world. Yes, this was done for the good of humanity, however, that does not negate the grief they feel in this moment. They lost their physical ‘light-in-the-darkness’ and are now left to navigate the world blindly. They were preparing for this moment for a long time, but now that they are here it all went out the window. In this moment of darkness in our world I think we can relate to the disciples in their moment of collapse. Will we rise out of our darkness like they did?

Emily: “Mysteries”. This one is particularly interesting to consider with the installation in Kansas City. Here, people have no idea what it looks like to leave earth’s atmosphere!

“A”: In trying to understand everything have we devalued our sense of awe and mystery? Do we know what to do when the darkness surrounds us?

Mysteries of the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ by Antonio Campi in the Louvre Museum

Brittany: I appreciate how the nighttime scene connects with the confusion and loneliness the disciples are experiencing during the Ascension. Jesus left them alone and in the dark of an imperfect world. Yes, this was done for the good of humanity, however, that does not negate the grief they feel in this moment. They lost their physical ‘light-in-the-darkness’ and are now left to navigate the world blindly. They were preparing for this moment for a long time, but now that they are here it all went out the window. In this moment of darkness in our world I think we can relate to the disciples in their moment of collapse. Will we rise out of our darkness like they did?

Emily: “Mysteries”. This one is particularly interesting to consider with the installation in Kansas City. Here, people have no idea what it looks like to leave earth’s atmosphere!

“A”: In trying to understand everything have we devalued our sense of awe and mystery? Do we know what to do when the darkness surrounds us?

The Martyrs of Uganda from Kampala Uganda representing a group of 23 Anglican and 22 Catholic converts executed between 31 January 1885 and 27 January 1887. At center is the Ascending Christ.

Brittany: I find myself focusing on the white flag which I associate with surrender and defeat. It feels out of place to connect the Ascending Christ to these ideas; however, the modern historical context of this art makes the white flag real. That white flag shows, on one hand, that Christ is defeated by those who execute Christians. On the other, I think of the phrase “pick up your cross” and surrender everything to God, including one’s life. This memorial is a rallying cry to keep giving even when it feels like losing.

Emily: I love how this painting incorporates the faces of angels at the top of the painting, which is distinct from the other images.

“A”: I both appreciate an image of Jesus not ascending to leave us, but one who stays connected both to the faithful and through the world around us.


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