“Ye men of Galilee, why stand you looking up to heaven? This Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come, as you have seen him going into heaven.”Acts 1:11
According to an ancient tradition, for forty days–from the Easter Vigil through Ascension Thursday–the Paschal candle is lit in the sanctuary as a symbol of the presence of the Risen Christ on earth. Then, after the chanting of the Gospel at the principal Mass of the Ascension, the candle is ritually extinguished, leaving behind a wisp of smoke reminiscent of the cloud which received Jesus out of the Apostles’ sight (Acts 1:9).
Extinguishing the Paschal candle perfectly symbolizes the drama of the Ascension: the forfeiting of bodily sight for the gift of spiritual vision. Indeed, though faith in Christ’s coming and faith in Jesus’s divinity preceded the Ascension, it was the Ascension that made faith a necessity for all of His followers. Henceforth, the sight of the Incarnate God gives way to faith in His return and in His continued presence behind the sacramental veils.
Both the imagery of the Second Coming and of the Sacraments appear in a new painting of the Ascension by sacred artist Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs. “This commission helped me to understand the centrality of the virtue of faith to the mystery of the Ascension,” she says. As she planned the painting, she sought visible ways to convey “the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1). “How do you paint the birth of faith? That was my question,” she says.
Immediately after the ascending Christ disappears from view, two “men in white”—angels—address the Apostles: “Ye men of Galilee, why stand you looking up to heaven? This Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come, as you have seen him going into heaven” (Acts 1:11). This angelic address, which opens the Introit for the Mass of the Ascension, was decisive for Gwyneth: “I realized that in addition to announcing the necessity of moving from sight to belief, the angels foretold the visible manner of the Second Coming.” She decided to conform her depiction of Christ’s Ascension to the scriptural hints about His return.
“As lightning cometh out of the east, and appeareth even into the west: so shall also the coming of the Son of man be,” Christ teaches in Matthew 24:27, and indeed there is something of the force, shape, and color of lightning in the robes with which Gwyneth has ensconced Christ in her Ascension. Certainly her depiction shows Him coming “with much power and majesty” (Matthew 24:30), revealing Himself as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Apocalypse 19:16). She depicts Christ in profile, a classic pose for regal and imperial portraits, especially those on coin. Christ’s robes are a fiery gold, as though woven from marigold flowers. “Gold is an unusual choice for an Ascension,” Gwyneth admits. Artists often clothe the ascending Christ in Paschal white, or sometimes in red and blue, a reference to the hypostatic union of human and divine natures in the single person of Christ. Instead, Gwyneth chose fiery gold to express Christ’s Second Coming in judgement as King of the Universe. “Gold alludes to Christ’s regality,” she explains, while “fire alludes to the ‘everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels’ (Matthew 25:41).”
Fiery gold also alludes to the sacramental mysteries, wherein Christ keeps His promise, “behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matthew 28:20). Christ’s golden robes recall the golden vestments which may be substituted for white ones on the most important feasts, including the Ascension. In the Mass, gold not only ensconces the alter Christus in the form of vestments, but also Christ on the altar in the form of the golden chalice. The suggestion of fire recalls the holocausts of the Old Law, which were types of the perfect Sacrifice of the New Law which is renewed in each Mass, and also the burning bush of Exodus 3, a type of the Blessed Sacrament.
Gwyneth’s Ascension also alludes to the Mass by depicting the white-clad angels who address the disciples as monk-acolytes pouring water from a cruet into a scallop shell and from the shell over a globus cruciger (a globe mounted with a cross; a traditional symbol of the temporal power of Christian regents) into a crystal basin. The cruet and basin reference the Lavabo rite after the Offertory, while the water flowing from the shell over the globe symbolizes Christ’s Great Commission to the Apostles at the moment of his Ascension to baptize all nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost (Matthew 28:19).
Thus Gwyneth’s Ascension at once anticipates Christ’s return in glory and attests to His continuing presence in the Sacraments until the end of time.
Gwyneth also turned to the artistic tradition for her Ascension. She was initially drawn to the medieval device of including only Christ’s feet at the top of the painting. “Leaving most of Christ off the visual plane is perhaps the most stark way to communicate the gulf between earth and Heaven that Christ bridges and the gulf between seeing and believing that the Christian must bridge,” she suggests. When the commissioner requested that the full figure of Christ be the central feature of the painting, Gwyneth turned to other artistic devices.
Giotto and Fra Angelico, for instance, place Christ entirely above the Apostles on a heavenly cloud, so that the viewer sees two separate planes of existence vertically juxtaposed. Rembrandt and Ford Madox Brown further emphasize the divide between the ascending Christ and the world below by casting the world in deep shadow and Christ in brilliant light. In Madox Brown, the contrast is marked even further by keeping Christ’s legs in the shadowy realm of the earth while his torso breaks through the clouds into Heaven like a man leaping from a pool of water, or a baby being born.
Gwyneth was inspired by the Madox Brown Ascension in her lighting scheme. All of the figures around Christ are lit by Him, while Christ is lit from within. (The interior lighting is especially evident from the glow emanating from Christ’s heart and wounds.) Thus the lighting helps to establish the distinction between Christ’s heavenly glory and the world below, whose light Christ is (John 8:12). Indeed, the manner in which the light of Christ illuminates the disciples in Gwyneth’s painting illustrates how Christ kindles the light of faith in the Christian. Practically speaking, the device of lighting all the figures from Christ was a challenge, Gwyneth notes, “since I worked with each model individually. There were some mistakes along the way.”
She did not follow the tradition of placing Christ high above the disciples because she was limited to a height of about nine feet, and wanted her figures to be about life-size. Instead, she drew inspiration from an Ascension by Giovanni Azzolini, an early Baroque painter in Naples and Genoa. In Azzolini’s painting, Christ is depicted having just left the ground, but clearly distinguished by his voluminous and weightless robe. Gwyneth incorporated a similar device: “Christ’s swirling robes illustrate his supernatural radiance, functioning something like a halo,” she explains.
Though Gwyneth’s Ascension is very much in the tradition of large altarpieces, it was commissioned not for a church building but for the cafeteria of a parish school. She was conscious that the painting’s primary audience would be children.
“Giving children access to original art is very important for their formation,” she says, “so I was thrilled to be able to paint for that audience,” especially given the paucity of original art in most people’s lives today. She goes on to explain: “Art involves the formation of matter; it’s a powerful analogy for the formation of virtue, used for instance by Plotinus in his likening moral development to a sculptor who slowly reveals a beautiful sculpture latent in the raw stone. Even apart from consideration of the subject matter, or how the subject matter has been treated, original art communicates the triumph of spirit in ordering chaos.”
Gwyneth is not concerned about the chaos of the cafeteria leaving food on the painting. Oil paints on canvas are very durable, and she has (as always) covered them with a protective varnish. “Wiping the surface with a damp cloth should remove most grime,” she says, “but for anything more serious the top layer of varnish could be removed and replaced by a professional art restorer without any lasting damage to the painting.” Indeed, Gwyneth, a mother of three, notes that from the perspective of protecting the artwork, oil paintings are one of the safest options. “My house is full of them,” she notes.
She thinks that designing her Ascension for a bustling school cafeteria imparted a dynamism to the composition and the color. “If I had been painting for a convent chapel, for instance,” she says, “I would probably have chosen a quieter composition and color scheme, to better harmonize with the contemplative nature of the space.”
Designing a painting for its home is one of the “great advantages of working on commission,” Gwyneth notes. She visited the cafeteria before designing her Ascension in order to note the scale, the light, and the color of the wall on which it would hang. Since the wall is grey, Gwyneth began with a grey underpainting and harmonized the edges of the painting towards a grey hue. The goal is to suit the painting to the space so well that it appears to emerge naturally.
The painting phase of Gwyneth’s Ascension coincided with the local quarantine in response to the Covid-19 coronavirus. Though her own work was largely unaffected by the quarantine—“perhaps it was even a little helpful for staying on task,” she suggests—Gwyneth found herself more convinced than ever of the importance of sacred art in the home.
“St. Louis Catholics were blessed to have our churches remain open during the quarantine, but like so many others around the globe, we were deprived of Mass,” Gwyneth recalls. “Initially, we tried watching livestreamed Masses, but we were reminded how poor a substitute for reality the virtual world provides. I found that I prayed better while meditating on a religious painting in person than while trying to unite myself spiritually to a livestreamed Mass.” She speculates that this has something to do with authenticity: “Real things put us in touch with Reality better than substitutes. I hope that those who are still isolated due to coronavirus or any other reason can discover the joy of original art in the home.”
Having extra time alone gave Gwyneth the chance to experiment with crafting maquettes—figurines made of wire, clay, and drapery carefully folded into shape with fabric stiffener. The maquettes could be arranged and lit to help work out the composition and block in the major areas of light and shadow. “It’s a traditional practice that I hope to experiment with more in the future,” she says.
Longer periods between sessions with models also afforded Gwyneth extra time to build up layers of color, glazing opaque hues with transparent ones to lend an chromatic intensity and depth uncommon in modern painting. “With each painting I complete, I become more and more aware that there’s no substitute for glazing, especially for drapery,” Gwyneth says. “The effect changes with each new skin of paint, and the end result is much more luminous and subtle.”
Though the painting was completed in early June, a backlog at the frame shop due to the long shut-down has delayed the installation of the painting. It is set to arrive at the school cafeteria in late August—along with the students.
When the students, faculty, and parishioners see Gwyneth’s Ascension in person, they will surely be drawn first to the dazzling figure of Christ. In this they will imitate most of the other figures in the painting—Our Lady, St. John the Beloved, and St. Mary Magdalene—each of whom gazes rapturously at Christ ascending. The eyes of the angelic acolytes are cast down, absorbed in the everlasting celestial liturgy. Only one figure—St. Peter—looks out toward the viewer, inviting his gaze.
“I wanted St. Peter, the first of the Apostles to confess that Jesus was the Christ, the rock of the Church, to look away from Christ and to the viewer. It’s a sign of his faith and his leadership,” Gwyneth explains. “He doesn’t need to see Christ anymore; he believes. Of course, Our Lady, the Magdalene, and St. John believe too, but they have contemplative vocations, with mystical vision. St. Peter, on the other hand, and Peter’s Successor in each generation, is the supreme teacher of faith and morals, the one who must confirm his brethren (Luke 22:32) and hand down the Faith unaltered and entire even to us in 2020, even to the consummation of the world.” Thus St. Peter turns to face the viewer, inviting us to believe with him and assuming his role as Christ’s visible head on earth.
Like the extinguishing of the Paschal candle, then, Gwyneth’s Ascension is a symbol of the faith—in the Second Coming, in the Sacraments, and in the Church—that was born when Christ ascended gloriously into Heaven.