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Finding joy in a leave-taking

10 May 2013

Pamela Tudor-Craig sees in Ascensiontide a feast of alabaster


See him rise: The Ascension, a late-14th-century alabaster panel that was given by W. L. Hildburgh to the V&A in 1950 (A27-1950), on loan since 1947

See him rise: The Ascension, a late-14th-century alabaster panel that was given by W. L. Hildburgh to the V&A in 1950 (A27-1950), on loan since ...

THE famous "gloomy" Dean of St Paul's used to make an annual event of a scathing sermon on the account of the ascension (as found only in St Luke's Gospel and on the threshold of the Acts of the Apostles, also associated with Luke). Taking place forty days after the resurrection, variously from Bethany or from Mount Olivet, it closed the sequence of Christ's post-resurrection appearances.

The burden of Dean Inge's re- frain was his point that the idea of Christ's rising into the sky depended on a cosmology where a flat earth, daily encompassed by the sun, the moon, and the stars, floated on the waters of the deep within the orb of the firmament of heaven.

Well, of course it did: everyone so believed until Galileo discovered otherwise. What is more, from the perspective of the ant, or the antiquary without a telescope, that is how it appears to be to this day. At the conclusion of a radio drama that I heard many years ago about Galileo's stormy career, his two pupils, Viviani and Torricelli, asked one another, "I wonder what they will call 'sunset' in a hundred years' time?"

The other day, a bank of threatening clouds fleetingly opened, to reveal a pale sun riding high and fast among white cumuli, and beyond a glimpse of a faded blue infinity. A path for the ascension: how else, I thought, could we imagine it? That is how the Christian Church did imagine it until the early 17th century. Our cosmology has grown immensely since then, and grows still. Our sense of our own scale in proportion to that of creation has perforce shrunk. Yet I understand that the parallel discoveries of the microscope suggest that we are the optimum size to carry our incredible mental capacities.

Science may have swept away some of the map that seemed so reasonable to the first millennium-and-a-half of Christianity, but we still spend our daily lives within what appears to us a stable environ-ment, and the dear certainties of earlier centuries are still companionable. Among these I would place the homely representations of the ascension in the Nottingham-alabaster retables that were so popular at the end of the 15th century, and would have been easy targets for Dean Inge's scorn.

I have always found it difficult to rejoice in commemorating the occasion when Christ took leave of his friends on earth, however essential that was to the shape of his purposes. So it still surprises me to find the ascension among the scenes of the joys of the Virgin in the only complete alabaster altarpiece in this country. The Swansea altarpiece, like the single panels discussed below, is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, but it was purchased in Munich in the 1830s. It had probably been a refugee from our Reformation iconoclasm.

To find now whole sets of alabasters still forming altarpieces of the life of Christ, you must go to northern France; but single panels have been collector's pieces for more than a century. One of the ascension now hangs in a chapel in Wells Cathedral, and seven of this subject are in the V&A in South Kensington. All but one come from the collection of W. L. Hildburgh.

The example from the chapel of the Earls of Carlisle at Naworth is exceptionally early, being of the later 14th century. This chapel still holds other medieval furnishings, treasured down the centuries by the courageously recusant Howard family. Exceptionally in this panel, the feet of Christ, carved into the edge of his robes, are hardly visible.

The essential features of these unambitious carvings are a group of the disciples kneeling and gazing upwards, Mary prominent among them. Above them, there disappear into the clouds the feet of Christ, and sometimes the hem of his robes. He has soared from a small but very precipitous mound with a flat top, rather like an open book or tablet with two indentations on it, the imprint of his feet. (We know the kick-back of a rocket aiming modestly for the moon.)

This detail is important, because flat stones with slight indentations upon them claiming to be from the mount of the ascension were valued relics in the Middle Ages. Henry III gave one such relic to Westminster Abbey. It was probably swept away at the Reformation, although I have always wondered whether an un-even and very slightly indented stone set into the Cosmati decoration of the pathetic little tomb of two of his children who died in infancy might, just might, be it.

You are still shown an indented stone in the Church of the Ascension outside Jerusalem. I wonder whether Dean Inge, travelling in the Holy Land with G. B. Shaw, saw it.

Whatever we think of the credulities of our medieval ancestors, the answer to Inge's scorn lies not in a relic, but, as the nuns of Stanbrook have wisely quoted, in the voice of one of the greatest medieval mystics. In the history of their house until its recent translation to the Yorkshire moors*, the Sisters have given the last word to the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, chapter 60:

"Since it so was that Christ should ascend bodily, and thereafter send the Holy Ghost bodily, therefore it was more seemly that it was upwards and from above than downwards and from beneath, behind, or before, on one side or the other. But else than from this seemliness, he need never the more had gone upwards than downwards: I mean for nearness of the way. For heaven ghostly is as near down as up, and up as down, behind as before, before as behind, on one side as on other. For the nearest way thither is run by desires, and not by paces of feet."

*In a Great Tradition: Tribute to Dame Laurentia McLachlan, Abbess (John Murray, 1956).

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