Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Friday, 18 May 2012

El Greco and St Leo the Great on the Ascension

A painting which does, to my mind, convey substantially more than other depictions the theology, and not just the mechanics, of the Ascension is El Greco's Holy Trinity, which is sometimes presented as a depiction of the Ascension, or at least the reception of Christ, both human and divine, back into the unity of the Trinity. It was painted as part of a series of nine canvasses for the Cistercian monastery of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo in 1577-79, and is now in the Prado in Madrid.


Image: backtoclassics.com

Derived from late medieval representations of the Holy Trinity, familiar in paintings and alabasters, but whereas these are static and facing the viewer, in this painting El Greco infuses the theme with a profoundly human and tender feeling, derived from the tradition of the Pieta.

Here in visual form is one of the great themes of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Here then is the return of Christ in the flesh to the throne of God. Here then is an emphatically Trinitarian presentation. Here too is the carrying of human flesh into the very Godhead. Here is the exhaustion and self-giving of immolation. Here is the full accomplishment of the act of Salvation. Here is the one all-sufficient sacrifice of God in the flesh offered by the Son. Here is its acceptance by the Father, who wears the High Priestly crown. Here the Holy Spirit hovers over the Father and the Son expressing their unity. Here is completion, fulfillment, reconciliation.

Coincidentally there have been some recent comments from contributors to the Medieval Religion discussion group about late medieval concepts of the Holy Trinity which reinforce this view. Thus, as one member wrote,
"the roles of the Persons of the Trinity can be interchangeable: The Father can be both Creator and Judge; the Son can be both Judge and Advocate; the Spirit can be both Advocate and Creator ... and I think there are more overlaps if one hunts for them ... I have never seen this as contradictoriness so much as flexibility - the essential Oneness of the Three. On the lines of the Athanasian Creed, perhaps ?" Another pointed out that in the fifteenth century, "students learned concerning the Trinity that  "Opera divina ad extra sunt indivisa", that is that the actions of the Trinity toward others cannot be neatly sorted.  So, the Son, sent by the Father and supported by the Spirit, performed the act of redemption." A third writer pointed out that in the Eastern tradition "all actions of the godhead (creation, salvation, judgement) are actually actions of the Trinity, no single Person. Nonetheless, in iconographic tradition, the Father cannot be depicted (for no one has seen Him) and the Spirit appears more or less as beams of light, so Christ alone is shown. There is no sense of needing to reconcile Christ as intercessor and judge because they are really one and the same thing - i.e., God’s judgement and mercy are the same thing seen from different perspectives." I wonder if his Cretan origins influenced, in this respect, his very un-Eastern depiction of the Trinity.

In artistic terms, El Greco has animated the existing tradition into the vibrancy of naturalism, or supra-naturalism. A stunning painting infused with spiritual insights. This is of course a painting created in the era of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross and the great age of Spanish mysticism. Here one senses, as with them, the opening up of perceptions beyond the visible and material into the Eternal.

The eastern origins of the painter may in part explain the awareness of the Divine behind the image, but is a way that is radically different from the static world of the icon - indeed diametrically opposed in every brush stroke. Here is the Divine life surging through and transforming the created order, here the Divine and the temporal meet, and are reconciled. There is the same spiritual vision can be seen in El Greco's contemporaneous painting of the Resurrection:



and even more in his later version of the same subject of 1596-1600:



Here again there is the Divine energy, and, just as in the Holy Trinity he combines the sacrifice of Calvary and the culmination of the Ascension with the very nature of the Godhead, so here he combines the force and power of the Resurrection with the upward vigour of the Ascension.

Turning from one of my favourite painters to one of my favourite patristic authors, here are the same themes as in the Holy Trinity as presented in two sermons on the Ascension from the fifth century by Pope St Leo the Great:

From Homily I
“And truly great and unspeakable was their [the Apostles] cause for joy, when in the sight of the holy multitude, above the dignity of all heavenly creatures, the nature of mankind went up, to pass above the angels’ ranks and to rise beyond the archangels’ heights, and to have its uplifting limited by no elevation until, received to sit with the Eternal Father, it should be associated on the throne with his glory, to whose nature it was united in the Son.”

- Extract from the Office of Readings for Wednesday before Ascension Day

and Homily II

Our faith is increased by the Lord's ascension
"At Easter, beloved brethren, it was the Lord’s resurrection which was the cause of our joy; our present rejoicing is on account of his ascension into heaven. With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father. It is upon this ordered structure of divine acts that we have been firmly established, so that the grace of God may show itself still more marvellous when, in spite of the withdrawal from men’s sight of everything that is rightly felt to command their reverence, faith does not fail, hope is not shaken, charity does not grow cold.
For such is the power of great minds, such is the light of truly believing souls, that they put unhesitating faith in what is not seen with the bodily eye; they fix their desires on what is beyond sight. Such fidelity could never be born in our hearts, nor could anyone be justified by faith, if our salvation lay only in what was visible.
And so our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments. Our faith is nobler and stronger because sight has been replaced by a doctrine whose authority is accepted by believing hearts, enlightened from on high. This faith was increased by the Lord’s ascension and strengthened by the gift of the Spirit; it would remain unshaken by fetters and imprisonment, exile and hunger, fire and ravening beasts, and the most refined tortures ever devised by brutal persecutors. Throughout the world women no less than men, tender girls as well as boys, have given their life’s blood in the struggle for this faith. It is a faith that has driven out devils, healed the sick and raised the dead.
Even the blessed apostles, though they had been strengthened by so many miracles and instructed by so much teaching, took fright at the cruel suffering of the Lord’s passion and could not accept his resurrection without hesitation. Yet they made such progress through his ascension that they now found joy in what had terrified them before. 
They were able to fix their minds on Christ’s divinity as he sat at the right hand of his Father, since what was presented to their bodily eyes no longer hindered them from turning all their attention to the realisation that he had not left his Father when he came down to earth, nor had he abandoned his disciples when he ascended into heaven.
The truth is that the Son of Man was revealed as Son of God in a more perfect and transcendent way once he had entered into his Father’s glory; he now began to be indescribably more present in his divinity to those from whom he was further removed in his humanity. A more mature faith enabled their minds to stretch upward to the Son in his equality with the Father; it no longer needed contact with Christ’s tangible body, in which as man he is inferior to the Father. For while his glorified body retained the same nature, the faith of those who believed in him was now summoned to heights where, as the Father’s equal, the only-begotten Son is reached not by physical handling but by spiritual discernment."


We have a high priest who sits at the right of the throne of the Divine Majesty in heaven. Let us come near to God, then, with a sincere heart and a sure faith, with heart made clean and guilty conscience purified, alleluia. 
Let us hold on firmly to the hope we profess, because we can trust God to keep his promise. Let us come near to God, then, with a sincere heart and a sure faith, with heart made clean and guilty conscience purified, alleluia. 

- From the Office of Readings for the Friday after Ascension Day

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