Ascension Day is not a national holiday in the United States, but for many it represents the day Christ ascended into heaven following crucifixion and burial.
It is a moveable holiday and depends on when Easter occurs. Ascension Day is celebrated on a Thursday, 40 days after Easter Sunday. According to the Bible, Jesus spent 40 days with his disciples after he rose from the grave.
In the world of fine art, this day is noteworthy due in part to the masterpieces created honoring this religious holy day. Many altars across the world display moveable art that allow the signs of the cross to be taught by chant, song, readings and by opening the foldable panels in order to tell the story of the passion.
One of the greatest altar pieces, the Isenheim Altarpiece (created from 1509 to 1515 A.D.) was painted and sculpted primarily by Matthias Gothart Nithart (also known by his nickname, "Matthias Grunewald." The altarpiece is a seven-section assembly of the life and ascension of Jesus.
The final panel, called the "Resurrection," is a masterpiece of design. Since the triptych is moveable (it opens from a center section like a casement window) it is considered to have a body and two arms that open outward and close across the chest. As you look at it closed, the far left side as viewed shows Christ's life from the crucifixion and lamentation.
Inside, the four panels show Mary at the annunciation, when she gave birth with angels attending, and at Christ's resurrection as he ascended into heaven. That last panel has always given rise to questions. It has perplexed artists and experts alike. It is not just modern in its imagery, but moving in a "different way," in its impact.
Some people interpret the disc behind Christ as something other than "halo radiance," or the sun or moon. It is spectacular in its majestic illumination even today, and certainly would have been in the 16th century. It influenced later artists.
William Blake, the 18th and 19th century British poet, painter and book illustrator, took Gunewald's magnificent disc one step further when he illustrated the seventh chapter of Daniel: "The Ancient of Days." A "bigger than life" depiction of creation, the painting seems to harmonize with the Isenheim "Ascension" painting.
Both works are worthy of celebrating, even if one has no religious beliefs at all. In some parts of Europe, Ascension Day means special spring foods and a day off from work. Some type of poultry or spring lamb is frequently a main dish, along with asparagus, fern fronds, new potatoes, mushrooms, ramps and spring fruits.
For more information on Ascension Day art and culture, look online for more information or locate books on Northern Renaissance/Reformation art from the library or favorite book seller..