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
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
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
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
"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).