Garofalo, Ascension of Christ, 1510-20, oil on panel, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome
marking the last appearance of Jesus on earth after his Resurrection at Easter forty days earlier and prior to his entry into Heaven. The dramatic event, central to the Christian message, is recounted in full only by Luke in the last chapter of his gospel and the first chapter of Acts. We are told that Jesus blessed his disciples and was carried up on clouds into the sky, as were Enoch, Elijah, and Moses before him.
Though the culminating event of Christ’s earthly mission, the Ascension was rather slow to appear in the visual arts and is a much rarer subject than the Resurrection, which celebrates Jesus’ triumph over death. The earliest versions derived from pagan apotheosis scenes, whereby Roman emperors were taken up to join the gods on Olympus. In Italian art, Ascension scenes frequently complete narrative cycles showing the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and in the later Renaissance and Baroque periods, it became a popular subject for vault frescoes, allowing artists to use their skills of illusion and perspective to suggest Christ’s ascent taking place directly above viewers’ heads.