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Reidersche Tafel - VM - Nigel Halliday

Reidersche Tafel: The Women at Christ's Tomb and the Ascension

Comfort and Encouragement in the Ascension

by Nigel Halliday

This exquisite ivory carving is known as the ‘Reidersche Tafel’ after the collector Martin Joseph von Reider (1793–1862) who donated it to the museum in Munich, Germany. It is thought to have been made in either Rome or Milan in about 400 AD, less than a century after Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman empire.    

The carving was probably intended to be attached to the leather cover of a codex of documents (hence the four holes in the corners). Scarcely half a centimeter thick, it is cut with highly skilled, delicate low relief. But the cutting in the mausoleum is deeper still and branches of the tree even stand out in three dimensions.

The focus of the image is on the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. A unifying serpentine line brings the women in from the right to find an angel by the tomb who tells them that Jesus is risen, and then leads up to Jesus being taken into heaven. Meanwhile in the top left corner a tree, growing apparently directly out of Jesus’ tomb, feeds two birds, symbolizing the Jews and Gentiles now brought together in Christ.

The artist may be drawing on all the New Testament evidence of the ascension, but the image seems to map most clearly onto Matthew’s account. He mentions the terrified reactions of the guards to the resurrection and the different reactions of the disciples to Jesus’ ascension, both shown here. He also emphasizes that the gospel is for ‘all nations’.

What particularly struck me in this image is the depiction of the ascension. Jesus is literally taken up into heaven: God’s hand comes out and grasps Jesus’ hand and draws him into the cloud. In his book Ascension Theology Douglas Farrow writes that for a great many western Christians ‘the doctrine of the ascension has become an enigma, if not an embarrassment’. We know the ascension happened and that it was necessary because Jesus could physically only be in one place at a time. The ascension allows Jesus to send the Holy Spirit, so he can be present with all of us, everywhere, all the time. However, in an age in which we know that Jesus isn’t just ‘up there’ beyond the canopy of the stars, we find it hard to visualize where he is; and many of us tend to gloss over the ascension and focus on what we can visualize, the incarnation and the Easter story. Paintings of the ascension since the Renaissance try to visualize the miracle of the event but seem to echo that embarrassment. Many show Jesus hovering awkwardly in mid-air, while others catch him in mid-ascension with his feet rather comically sticking out of the bottom of the cloud.

Embarrassment over trying to visualize the actual event can deflect us from the importance of what it means. By contrast the confessions of the early church, such as the Apostles’ Creed written before 300 AD, see the ascension as a central part of the Christian narrative, equal to Christmas and Easter:

He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

By using symbolism rather than naturalism the Reidersche Tafel points us to the deeper significance of the ascension. Jesus, shown walking up the mountain, is grasped by God and taken into his presence. The cloud is not a convenient bit of cumulus nimbus that hides Jesus from view, but the very presence of God, the cloud that led the Israelites in the desert and filled Solomon’s temple.    

The ascension is a further vindication of Jesus by the Father: not only raised from the dead, proving that he is the one who has authority to lay down his life and take it up again, Jesus is now welcomed into heaven, seated at God’s right hand. Jesus is so completely loved and trusted by the Father that he has given him the position of highest honour and authority in the universe. The carving also shows Jesus holding a scroll in his other hand. This is presumably the scroll of Revelation 5, which only Jesus has the authority to open.

The significance of the ascension is not the miraculous nature of the event by which Jesus is taken off the earth, but a comfort to us who trust him: the Father has confirmed his total satisfaction with what Jesus has done and in which we trust. And Jesus, who loves us and gave himself for us, is now exercising all power and authority over the universe ‘for the good of those who love him’ (Romans 8:28).

According to Karl Barth in his Dogmatics in Outline the fact that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God is ‘the first and the last thing that matters for our existence in time…  Whatever prosperity or defeat may occur in our space, whatever may become and pass away, there is one constant, one thing that remains and continues, this sitting of His at the right hand of God the Father.’

The Apostle Paul in Colossians 3:1-3 also uses Jesus’ ascension as an encouragement for how we should now live: ‘… set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above … For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.’

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The Women at Christ's Tomb and the Ascension (the Reidersche Tafel), Rome or Milan, c. 400. Ivory plaque, 18.7 cm x 11.5 cm x 0.6/0.7 cm. Munich: Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Germany.

Nigel Halliday is an art historian and a Bible teacher with Hope Church in Greatham and Petersfield, Hampshire, UK.

ArtWay Visual Meditation 16 May 2021