Our dramatic Altarpiece (opposite) is a portrayal of the Ascension of Christ into heaven, which is described in the New Testament in the two books traditionally ascribed to the evangelist Luke (Luke 24.50-51, Acts 1.9-11). The Ascension in the scriptures brings to an end the period following Christ's Resurrection when he appeared again to his followers, and hence marks Christ's exaltation to the right hand of God the Father.
The Ascension was thus interpreted as the beginning of the Messianic kingdom, which was later to be experienced by His followers through the descent of the Holy Spirit. The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews also saw the Ascension as a form of the priestly sacrifice, Christ being described as 'the great high priest who has passed through the heavens', the sanctuary of God. It is thus fitting that the painting should be placed at the sanctuary of the church, regarded as the holiest part of the building due to the presence of the altar where the Eucharist is celebrated.
As a subject in Christian art, the Ascension is, however, less common than the depiction of other major events in the life of Christ such as the Crucifixion or Resurrection. The artist of the painting, Hans Feibusch (1898-1998), seems to have had an affinity for this subject, however, as he portrayed it on a number of occasions in his work. Mr Feibusch was a German Jewish émigré who became a refugee from the Nazis, and he rapidly built a body of work in the post-war period designing murals for churches, often in collaboration with Thomas Ford.
Traditionally, the Ascension was portrayed as Christ being taken up by the hand of God; as Him floating upwards in a mandorla surrounded by angels; or even merely as feet disappearing into a cloud! Many portrayals on traditional lines seem to emphasise the division which has opened up between Christ and his followers; for example, the magnificent stained-glass window at the east end of St Philip's Cathedral in Birmingham by Sir Edward Burne-Jones shows Christ and the angels in an upper tier and the disciples gathered below, in a rather static and hieratic manner.
In contrast, the particular quality of Feibusch's painting may be said to be a sense of dynamism, intimacy, and intensity, as we are made to feel that a majestic and dramatic event is unfolding before our eyes. The ascending figure of Christ seems to occupy a diagonally defined space in the upper and central portions of the picture, still in the very midst of his followers, while the dramatic and apparently uncoordinated gestures of the Apostles below serve to emphasise the sense of movement in the picture. The angels in the upper part of the painting also seem full of movement and vibrancy, while the centre of the picture is suffused by an orange and roseate glow which creates a most beautiful and mystical effect. The rather ochreish colour scheme of the painting also ensures that, while providing a brilliant and attractive focus to the altar area, it is not so bright as to overwhelm the subdued colour scheme of the church as a whole. The picture may particularly be appreciated when it is dappled by the morning light entering from the stained glass window to the left, which creates a sense almost of transfiguration.
© Paul Shaw 2008