I cannot have been any older than ten, when I was taken to Munich art gallery, where I was mesmerized by Altdorfer’s huge masterpiece, The Battle oflssus, presenting the victory of Alexander the Great over Darius the Persian emperor, against a vast, apocalyptic landscape. I couldn’t get enough of it, and had in the end to be dragged reluctantly away by impatient parents.
Altdorfer was a pillar of the civic community in Regensburg, Germany, in the opening three decades of the sixteenth century. Most of his work was religious in character, but his most noted contribution to the development of western art was his imaginative use of landscape – the stylized depictions of his contemporaries are given a wonderful energy and liveliness at his hands (one crucifixion scene is set above a lake overlooked by alpine crags).
In this ascension scene, the artist plays
The Ascension – Albrecht Altdorfer
with landscape in an altogether different way, and on a smaller scale, to express the religious truth. This is Christ’s ascension from the perspective of the gospels not the Acts of the Apostles, of Mark [16.19] perhaps; it is linked to the resurrection much more closely than that narrative on the Mount of Olives.
It is also strikingly different to his other paintings in its lack of colour – all is light and dark on a very limited palette. Above the empty tomb, with its sleeping or stupefied soldiers, rises/ascends the Lord – the ethereal brilliance given focus by the outline of a tree, that could have been by a Romantic painter three centuries later.
It is an effective presentation of the duality of the ascension: Christ who departs but yet remains near, whose triumph into heaven is the guarantee of his continuing presence here on earth.