The sixth-century illuminated Syriac manuscript known as the Rabbula Gospels (after the signed name of its scribe) contains one of the earliest depictions of Christ’s ascension into heaven. A full-page miniature, it illustrates the narrative from Acts 1:6–11—but not strictly.
One embellishment to the story is the centralized presence of Mary on the bottom level. She is not mentioned in the biblical account of the event, but her attendance was likely. Here she stands in a frontal, orant pose and, unlike the other disciples, is nimbed. Whereas those around her are wracked with confusion, she understands the deep mysteries of her son’s birth, death, resurrection, and ascension, and she stands ready for his return.
Among the crowd is the apostle Paul—an anachronistic insertion, as his conversion occurred after the Ascension. The book he holds, signifying his contributions to the New Testament, is one of his identifying attributes.
The “two men . . . in white robes” mentioned in Acts 1:10 are interpreted as angels.
All these elements became standard in medieval iconography of the Ascension.
The upper register shows Jesus inside a mandorla being borne upward by angels. Two more angels with covered hands present golden crowns, a reference to the aurum coronarium ceremonies of the Hellenistic world and/or the acts of veneration recorded in Revelation 4:10–11.
In the top corners are personifications of the sun (Sol) and the moon (Luna), characters from Roman art that were especially popular in portraits of emperors.
What I find most unique about this painting is its borrowing of visionary imagery from Ezekiel. In the first chapter of his book Ezekiel describes having witnessed four winged creatures serving as a chariot for the divine throne. Each of the creatures had four different faces—human, eagle, lion, and ox—and their spirits turned the gyroscopic wheels beneath them, which flashed fire. This is Ezekiel’s inaugural encounter with God’s glory.
The artist of the Rabbula Gospels has incorporated several details from Ezekiel’s vision into his rendering of the Ascension: the four faces, the wheels within wheels, the human hand under the wings (v. 8), and the flames of fire. He also has Jesus holding an unrolled scroll, a possible reference to Ezekiel 2:9–10.
John had a similar vision involving four living creatures. In Revelation 4:8 he mentions them having eyes on their wings, another detail our present artist takes up.
The biblical account of the Ascension doesn’t really describe the majesty of Christ. We are told only that “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). Because the artist wanted to evoke a sense of the glory into which Christ was ascending, he had to borrow his imagery from elsewhere.
I’m intrigued by the implications this synthesis has for Pentecost. For example, Ezekiel 1:4 describes a “stormy wind” accompanying God’s appearance; similarly, “a mighty rushing wind” from heaven signals the descent of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:2. The wind isn’t apparent in this particular painting, but the “tongues of fire” are. The Rabbula Gospels does have a full-page miniature devoted to the subject of Pentecost, so I’m not sure that the artist intended for the Ascension image to bear that reference, but it’s interesting to consider.