Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Icons of the Great Feasts: The Ascension

May 17th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously here

We continue our series of looking at the icons of the Great Feasts of the Eastern Rite Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

The angel Gabriel was at the beginning, at the Incarnation, when God took flesh of the Virgin Mary and became man. Angels filled the sky to announce His birth to shepherds. God humbled Himself and descended to earth and became flesh.

When the Lord ascended back to His Father at the end of His earthly mission, He took with Him His human body, now glorified.  Redemption was complete and, just like at the beginning, angels were present.

At the Incarnation the Lord -Divinity- descended into human flesh; in the Ascension He takes His flesh back to the Father. Like Jesus, we too will ascend to the Father, our flesh glorified.

“The Ascension of Christ is our elevation, and whither the glory of the Head has preceded by anticipation, the hope of the body too is called.”1

In the icon of the Ascension, Christ ascends to heaven in a round shape of glory, a mandorla or full body halo reserved for manifestations of divinity. The mandorla is by definition almond shaped but circular and star ones are not uncommon.  Flanking the mandorla are angels. They might be interpreted by some people as powering the mandorla  upward but, in fact, they extend their arms in praise, for Christ ascends of His own power and not by the aid of anyone or anything else. Other angels trumpet the return of the Son to Heaven.

“Today the hosts on high, beholding our nature in the heavens, marvel at the strange manner of its ascent, and, being perplexed, they said one to another: Who is this that comes? And when they saw that it was they Master, they commanded to lift up the heavenly gates. With them we ceaselessly praise you, who again shall come from thence in the flesh, as the Judge of all and Almighty God”2

In traditional iconography of the Ascension, the mandorla consists of concentric circles of blue tones that gradate from a dark center to a lighter perimeter. Often, golden streaks of light radiate out from the figure of Christ who is shown either in white or orange robes, the colors of Christ’s divinity in icons that manifest His glory. He blesses with His right hand and holds a scroll in His left, a symbol of the gospel that the apostles are charged with taking to the ends of the earth.

In the center of the icon at the bottom among the grouping of the apostles is Mary, the Mother of God. According to Tradition Mary was present at the Ascension although sacred scripture is silent about her being there. Likewise, St. Paul (on the right) is depicted as being present  but he, of course, could not have been there as he was not as yet converted to Christ. Whenever something appears in an icon that is not mentioned in scripture we look for a doctrinal explanation. Here, it is the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ.

Mary’s figure is placed in the composition directly beneath the enthroned figure of Christ who is head of the Church. Mary and the original apostles and St. Paul, a later convert, form the core from which the Church will develop. Mary is the embodiment of the Church; personifying the body of the Church. She stands in the orans position of prayer, the symbol of the whole Church praying and seeking intercession with Christ, the Head.  In some icons she is depicted in the traditional martyr’s pose with hands in front of her breasts and palms facing forward. In still others, she has one hand raised with the palm facing forward and the other extended as if presenting the apostles, Church. Mary’s calm and confident stillness expresses the immutability of the revealed truth entrusted to the Church.3 The –often- more animated apostles suggest a variety of languages and means for expressing the truth.

"Last Judgment", (detail) tympanum, Church of St. Foy, Conques, France, 1107


Two angels stand among the apostles and caution them that as Christ ascended so He will return at the end of time. This eschatological aspect of the icon and the Gospel message leaves us with the hopeful expectation of the Second Coming. In fact, in icons of the Last Judgment Christ is depicted as arriving in the same mandorla type shape, accompanied by angels.



1 Saint Leo the Great, Discourse 73. First text on the Ascension. P.L. 54, col. 396

2 The Ascension, Matins of the Eastern Rite

3 Solrunn Nes, The Mystical Language of Icons, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), p. 87

Picture Sources

Featured Icon (top):

Book Recommendations and Research Sources

Solrunn Nes, The Mystical Language of Icons, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing, 2004)

Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994)

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2 Responses to “Icons of the Great Feasts: The Ascension”

  1. Raymond F. Rice says:

    Does the main figure (Christ) on the tympanum at Conques retain some of its original paint??

  2. Bernie says:

    Raymond, that’s a good question. I’m not sure if it was ever painted. The color you see in the picture has been intensified (and the surrounding area, neutralized) so that viewers would be able o focus on the figure of Christ. It is, I believe, the natural color of the stone (slightly intensified). Would a tympanum have originally been painted is the more basic question. I don’t know. Some interior sculpture was but I just never ran across the issue in regards to tympana. Greek sculpture, so white now, was actually painted. Greek temples, as well, were all originally painted in intense yellows, reds, blues, and greens.

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