Angus Ritchie on the Ascension of Jesus

This is the twenty-first follow-up entry to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens”. Here, we look at one contemporary Anglican priest’s reaction to an artistic depiction of the ascension of Jesus, noted for its honesty and error.

The previous posts were not organized well before, so I ordered them; further, they were becoming so numerous, and the text block listing and introducing them was so large, that they were soon going to take up more space than the posts themselves. Thus, I organized and listed them here.

I recently came across an article about the ascension of Jesus, originally a sermon preached at Magdalene College, Oxford, in late May of 2012, by an Anglican priest, Angus Ritchie. One can only assume it was a homily for the Feast of the Ascension.

As though the representation of Jesus’ ascension were problematic for reasons of the representation of motility, the homilist notes that there

are very few statues or sculptures of our Lord’s Ascension.  It’s always difficult to convey movement in a statue.  How on earth do you depict Jesus going up into the heavens?  Painters certainly show it as a stately and seemly movement – so the sculptor cannot show hair or clothes being ruffled by high speed, upward travel.  How, then is movement to be expressed?

A number of churches have tried to rise to this artistic challenge. One congregation has commissioned a vast helium balloon of Jesus in a cloud.  The Shrine Church at Walsingham adopts a different approach.  Its Chapel of the Ascension has a cloud sculpted into its roof, with two feet sticking out.

I must confess, when I first saw the Chapel roof, my reaction was to collapse in fits of giggles.   Because sculpture cannot easily convey movement, there is an unfortunate ambiguity.  It isn’t entirely clear whether the feet are on their way up or down.  It rather looks as if the ceiling has fallen in, and someone’s feet are now dangling through the roof.

That’s Ritchie. In case those feet aren’t clearly showing up in the image above, let me post them again:

Ritchie, honest about his response to this artistic description, admits that “when I first saw the Chapel roof, my reaction was to collapse in fits of giggles.” This is, of course, because the tacitly assumed cosmography laughs, naturally, at what can only seem like a naïve cosmographic representation — a representation that was not at all obviously naïve before the modern cosmographic imagination. The laughter comes from the sense of absurdity in the mis-match between our cosmic imagination and the previous ages’ one — an effect exploited by figures like Monty Python. The ascension, Ritchie claims,

shows us who and what has gone, without telling us precisely where he has gone.


Jesus tells his disciples he is going back to the Father, not on an extended voyage into outer space.

Here the collision of earlier cosmographic imaginations and our modern cosmic imaginary are clear, but the author wants to deny the collision, and so inevitably misinterprets what would have been the obvious significance to any hearer, reader, or interpreter before the modern era. They knew where they thought Jesus went. That space is not there, however. Dealing squarely with that problem is the only honest way of dealing with the conflict.


Header image found here

2 thoughts on “Angus Ritchie on the Ascension of Jesus

    • Actually, this is an interesting situation — the ascension story has a cosmology baked into it that is also part of ordinary Church architecture. There are paintings that seem to portray the same thing. More on that soon.


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