Acts of Witnessing: The Munich Ivory of the Ascension, Medieval Visuality and Pilgrimage–By Lindsey Hansen

Relief: Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Christi, Inv.-Nr. MA 157, Foto Nr. D27841, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum

The ivory plaque of the Ascension in the collection of the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich is recognized as a formative work in the evolution of medieval Christian iconography on this theme. Though regarded by scholars of the Middle Ages as an important image of the Early Christian period, there is little scholarship that gives more than a passing nod to the significance of the plaque as an object deserving of independent study, or which attempts to analyze the meaning of its content and design.…”[1] This study examines the Munich Ivory as an artifact of medieval pilgrimage imagery rather than solely as a step in the iconographic development of the period. It identifies the events and figures included in the plaque through comparisons with biblical and extra-biblical texts, and elucidates the symbolic meaning and function of the image as a whole through an interpretation that relies on theories of medieval visuality and issues of pilgrimage.

The Ascension was a relatively late addition to the Christian iconographic tradition, appearing alongside the establishment of the feast-day of the Ascension between 380 and 430.[2] The early date of around 400 attributed to the Munich Ivory identifies it as one of the first images to address the subject.[3] As such, it should be considered an object unique in the historical record that functions as an experimental phase in the development of the iconographic type. Later representations of the event focus on the relationship of the Ascension to the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment as foretold in Ezekiel and Revelation, and on Mariology and the veneration of the Virgin.[4] The ivory, on the other hand, includes scenes of the Resurrection and the Ascension, and presents the events as two independent yet related elements within a unified and continuous narrative. Rather than using the Ascension as a means of reminding the viewer of the Second Coming and the need for salvation, it emphasizes the dependence of the Ascension on the events of the Resurrection, as the former was not possible without the latter having taken place first. The stress placed on the narrative quality of the image, and its compression of space and time in the account of the Resurrection and Ascension suggest that the ivory was intended to emphasize the importance of the act of witnessing.

Theories of medieval visuality suggest that in the Middle Ages, it was believed that the gap between the past and the present could be eliminated through the proper arrangement of space. Additionally, theories of pilgrimage propose that by viewing holy sites or reading about them, medieval viewers could become eyewitnesses to important Christological events through a process of symbolic transportation to the Holy Land.[5] The process of meditative transfer could be enhanced through properly rendered representations of holy sites as well as through emotional and sensorial engagement with an image or text. By combining theories of visuality with issues of medieval pilgrimage, a reading of the plaque is possible in which space and time are compressed to allow the viewer to travel to the Jerusalem and experience the events of the Resurrection and the Ascension first-hand. Meditation on the image allows the viewer to overcome gaps in space and time in order to be present at the holy sites at the time when the sacred events occurred. In the arrangement of its overall design, the selection of figures to be included in the image, and in the gestures of those figures, the Munich Ivory implicates its viewers and symbolically transports them to Golgotha and the Mount of Olives to act as witnesses to the Resurrection and the Ascension.

Medieval Visuality and Meditative Pilgrimage

In the Middle Ages, pilgrims travelled to the sites where holy events had taken place in order to become more active participants in sacred history. The power of the place, coupled with meditation and the pilgrims’ imaginations, allowed them to be carried back to the time when events occurred. For believers who were unable to make the physical journey to the Holy Land, meditative pilgrimage enabled them to traverse not only the chronological but also the spatial distance that separated them from the locations and objects of their devotion.[6] By meditating on scripture, the descriptive texts in pilgrimage guides, and images of sacred places and events, the meditative pilgrim could transcend space and time in order to participate in Christian history in a fashion similar to those who were physically present at loci sancti.

In an essay on medieval visuality, Georgia Frank establishes that the vocabulary of pilgrimage was primarily a visual one.[7] Using the writings of early Christian pilgrims, she shows that vision was privileged among the senses and offered the pilgrim special benefits. Visiting a holy site was more than touristic voyeurism; it allowed the pilgrim to become implicated in the holy event that was thought to have taken place there. As Frank explains, “whereas tourists see the markers of the biblical events, pilgrims ‘linger’ to see the event itself.”[8] In medieval visuality, the act of seeing was thought to create a bond with the divine by conjuring its presence. A visit to a holy site triggered the pilgrim to remember the biblical story in a way that brought the historical moment vividly into the present.[9] As a result, by eliminating the distance between the historical past and physical present, viewing a holy site allowed the pilgrim to become an active participant in the biblical event.[10]

The veneration of holy sites and practices of pilgrimage became important elements of the Christian faith as early as the late-second century with Melito of Sardis’ description of Jerusalem. Over the next two centuries, several more pilgrims wrote about their experiences in the Holy Land, including Bishop Alexander of Jerusalem in 200, the Bordeaux Pilgrim in 333, Egeria in 381-384 and Jerome in 385.[11] Their goal was to be present at loci sancti. As Paulinus of Nola explains:

No other sentiment draws men to Jerusalem than the desire to see and touch the places where Christ was physically present, and to be able to say from our very own experience “we have… adored in the very places where his feet have stood.” Theirs is a truly spiritual desire to see the places where Christ suffered, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven…[12]

The presence of pilgrims at these sites allowed them to recreate the events of the life and Passion of Christ in their memories and imaginations. Pilgrims frequently recited passages from the scriptures related to the events that took place at each site during their visits.[13] Egeria frequently highlights her desire to hear or read scripture in the presence of loci sancti. For example, in her description of Sinai and the Mount of God, she states, “Indeed, whenever we arrived anywhere, I myself always wanted the Bible passage to be read to us.”[14] Such practices allowed the events of Christ’s life, from which the pilgrims were far removed in time, to take on a sense of immediacy.[15] Presence at the holy sites combined with scriptural readings allowed the pilgrims to break down the barriers of space and time in order to relive the events as though they were experiencing them first-hand. Through these practices, pilgrims became witnesses to the Passion, allowing the events of the life of Christ to be repeated continually in the present.[16]

The pilgrimage practices that were established in the third and fourth centuries persisted well into the later Middle Ages, as attested by the itinerary maps in Matthew Paris’ Chronica maiora and a group of sixteenth-century manuscripts containing the Stations of the Cross from the Saint Agnes Convent in Maaseik. In both of these cases, the descriptive texts and accompanying images functioned as substitutes for pilgrimages to the Holy Land.[17] Few people in the Middle Ages were able to visit Jerusalem, since the expense of the voyage was prohibitively high, and many of those wishing to make the journey were bound by their monastic vows to remain in Western Europe.[18] Rather than physically travelling to Jerusalem, the majority of medieval pilgrims relied on textual descriptions and visual representations of biblical loci sancti, through which they could be symbolically present at the sites. That is, by meditating on these descriptions and representations, the events became more vivid to meditative pilgrims and allowed them to transcend their physical space in order to be present at the holy sites in their minds. The utility of a pilgrimage text as a meditative guide was sometimes marked out in its opening pages, as in the case of the Saint Agnes Convent manuscripts, where the preface states that the reader “does not have to be in Jerusalem to follow the road of Christ, but can do it wherever she happens to be.”[19]

Often, the authors of such texts had never visited Jerusalem themselves, but instead relied on the descriptive accounts of others who had made the journey and seen the sites.[20] The utility of first-hand descriptions of the Holy Land is attested from the earliest accounts, as in the letter now called the Itinerarium Egeriae, which Egeria wrote for her sisters (nuns in a Spanish convent) so that they might better visualize what they had read in the Bible.[21] In this regard, the notion of meditative pilgrimage is part of a tradition spanning well over a millennium, in which descriptive accounts of the Holy Land allowed the reader to access loci sancti and ruminate on their importance. Just as the pilgrim standing before a holy site could compress time in order to witness the events of the Passion, the reader of the text or image compressed both space and time through meditation in order to be transported to the site and to experience the events.

The idea that reading about a place could have the same effect as standing before it had already been established in classical philosophy. According to Plato’s Theory of Forms, there were two ways of looking at the world. In the first, the world was experienced through the five senses; in the second, it was known through reason and intellect. Plato believed that the “sensual” world contained both truth and falsehood (as the physical senses can deceive), whereas the “intellectual” realm contained only truth. The “intellectual” world could be accessed only through contemplation.[22] Christian ascetics approved of this Platonic division of the world, which privileged meditation over the physical senses.[23] Such a theory helps to explain how written descriptions of holy sites could provide similar benefits as pilgrimages, and how meditative pilgrimages came to be valued alongside physical ones.

In addition to these descriptions, it became common in the Middle Ages for copies of buildings erected at holy sites to be constructed outside of Jerusalem. Richard Krautheimer has stressed the importance of the copying of holy sites as a means of “reminding the faithful of the venerated site, [and] evoking his devotion and of giving him a share at least in the reflections of the blessings which he would have enjoyed if he had been able to visit the Holy Site in reality.”[24] The process of copying functioned as a means of creating a typology of pilgrimage, which allowed for the copy to become a substitute for the original through a symbolic visitation to the holy site.[25] In his examination of the iconography of medieval architecture, Krautheimer suggests that, for the medieval viewer, visual markers of an architectural copy were more important than the creation of an exact replica of the original space. As long as the copy contained the appropriate suggestions of the original structure, it was viewed as holding the same power as the original.

In physical pilgrimages to Jerusalem, textual accounts and images of the Holy Land, and the construction of copies of sacred spaces, the emphasis is placed on experiencing loci sancti in order to compress space and time and witness the events of the life and Passion of Christ first-hand. Though these theories of medieval visuality have not previously been applied the Munich Ivory, it is my contention that the plaque had a function similar to these other meditative tools. By providing images of the holy sites associated with the Resurrection and Ascension, the ivory may have functioned as an aid to meditative pilgrimage, through which the viewer would be transported mentally in both space and time to Jerusalem to bear witness to the Christological events.

The Ivory: Context and Use

The Munich Ivory has been identified as part of a group of objects produced in Rome or Milan in the last quarter of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century.[26] Other objects commonly thought to be part of the same group are the Brescia Casket, three relief panels from a casket now in the collections of the British Museum, the Aesculapius-Hygeia and Probianus diptychs, and the famous diptych Nichomacorum-Symmachorum. The diversity of subject matter in these objects demonstrates that pagan and Christian images were frequently produced alongside one another within the same workshops. As John Beckwith suggests, Early Christian art was a product of the Late Antique market, and the familiarity of the classical style helped to make the new works accessible, comprehensible and meaningful to their Christian audiences. In this period, Late Antique styles and object types were appropriated by Christian communities and put to use in new ways.[27]

The silver Projecta Casket, for example, was intended as a luxury item for a wealthy family. It was made for an upper-class Roman woman on the occasion of her wedding for use as a toiletries box.[28] Though the Chi-Rho monogram is present on the lid of this casket, the iconography is predominantly pagan in nature, and the busts of Projecta and her husband suggest that the box was intended for private use. The Brescia Casket, on the other hand, was most likely a reliquary intended for display in a small shrine or chapel of a basilica.[29] It contains a variety of Old and New Testament scenes and, given the nature of the iconography, Carolyn Joslin Watson argues that it was intended for public rather than private use.[30]

The similarities in the size, iconography and style of the Brescia Casket and the Munich Ivory suggest that the panel may have originally belonged to a similar object which had a similar use.[31] Given the number of caskets with Christian imagery produced by the workshop with which the ivory has been associated, the small size of the plaque (it measures 7.4 by 4.5 inches) and the four holes drilled into its corners by which it could be attached to a larger structure, it is likely that the piece was originally part of a casket. In both cases, Beckwith’s assertion that pagan objects were put to new Christian use is confirmed, as the caskets were transformed from private household items into public devotional ones. This change in context simultaneously allowed a greater viewing public for the objects and ensured that the iconography would be more legible to its viewers despite its newness because it was similar to existing works. In their new settings, the images of the Brescia Casket and the Munich Ivory could be used as meditative tools to aid the viewer in transcending space and time to become participants in Christological events in the same way that descriptive texts and architectural copies of holy sites did.

The Ivory and the Art of Narrative

The ivory can be divided into three distinct groups of figures, each of which is placed into a specific natural or architectural environment. The first of these three groups is located in the lower right quadrant of the panel, where three women enter into the central space from the right. The second group of figures, located in the lower left quadrant of the plaque, is arranged around an architectural space that is topped with a domed second story and decorated with figural sculpture and relief panels. Two of the figures stand behind the structure and the third sits in front of it, gesturing with his right hand and directing attention diagonally to the top of the ivory where the third group of figures is located. Emerging from behind the dome in the upper left portion of the image is an olive tree with two birds in it, biting at its fruit. This tree may be a reference to the Mount of Olives, where the events of the Ascension took place.[32] In the final section of the image, Christ is shown climbing up a rocky outcropping and grasping the right hand of God with his own right hand as he prepares to enter into heaven. In his left hand, he holds a scroll. He is differentiated from the other figures by the nimbus that encircles his head. Christ is given a sense of movement through the arrangement of his robes, which billow out behind him as he ascends the Mount. Two crouched figures, one who buries his head in his hands and the other with his hands outstretched, are present in the space just below the mountain where Christ ascends into heaven.

Two distinct narrative scenes have been identified within the plaque.[33] The first is composed of the two groups of figures located in the bottom register of the ivory. Here, the three Marys approach the tomb of Christ. An angel sits in front of the tomb, and two soldiers, one standing upright and the other with his head on the building, lean against it. In the second, Christ ascends into heaven as two disciples look on.[34] The composition of the plaque presents these narrative moments as separate yet related events, and the arrangement of the figures dictates the order in which the three groupings should be read. A dynamic diagonal cuts the panel nearly in half from lower left to the upper right and functions to visually separate the scene at the tomb from the scene of the Ascension. This diagonal is created by the gesture of the figure seated at the tomb, the shape of the rocky outcropping on which Christ ascends into heaven, and the body of the figure who crouches directly below him. At the same time that this line divides the composition into two parts, it also accentuates the feeling of upward movement, emphasizing the central theme of the panel: that Christ is ascending into heaven. This sense of movement is enhanced by the figure seated in front of the tomb, whose gesture functions to direct the attention of the viewer into the top portion of the image. The gazes and poses of each group of figures direct the viewer’s attention across and through the planes of the image, effectively connecting each section to the next. The viewer enters into the panel at the lower right corner with the group of the three mourning women, whose gazes direct attention to the group of figures at the tomb, where the seated figure then points toward the upper right portion of the panel. The dynamic composition of the ivory ensures that the eye moves continuously through the picture plane, gaining more information with each diagonal sweep.

In its composition, the Munich Ivory organizes events separated in both space and time into a seamless whole which highlights the most important aspects of the narrative of the Resurrection and the Ascension. It compresses space and time in a manner that reminds the viewer of the overarching themes and significance of the events as a whole while simultaneously allowing them to experience each of the moments individually.[35] This is possible as a result of the nature of the narrative image, which functions differently from a narrative text. Whereas textual narrative is limited by linear progression, visual narrative can present multiple events within a single space in order to create more dynamic correspondences between temporally and geographically disparate events.

In an essay dedicated to the examination of narrative representation, Herbert Kessler stresses the dependence of Christian art on the narrative tradition.[36] He explains that, unlike the Greco-Roman pagan religions, which did not share standardized central texts, Christianity developed in relation to the sacred word of the Bible. As a result, Kessler argues, Christian art is linked to literary forms and is inherently an art of narrative.[37] In its textual form, biblical narrative is episodic in nature, with each story concluding with an important moral or theological message. These episodes are generally self-contained, and frequently lack transitional passages.[38] In visual representations, however, moments from several events can be presented in close proximity to one another, allowing the viewer to draw exegetical and theological meaning across groups of narrative scenes in ways that might differ from the interpretation of isolated biblical accounts.[39]

The Munich Ivory exemplifies the translation of the literary tradition into the visual arts of the early Christian period. Here, the scenes can be viewed as individual episodes within the story of the Resurrection and the Ascension which have been juxtaposed with one another to create a continuous narrative. The arrangement of the scenes also allows for multiple readings of each section to be carried out as the viewer spends more time before the ivory, creating a more complex picture of the events of the Ascension each time the eye works its way through the pictorial plane. In accordance with theories of visuality and medieval pilgrimage that were popular in the Middle Ages, it is through these compressions of narrative space and time that the viewer may be transported to the holy sites to bear witness to the sacred events that took place there.

The Ivory as an Instrument for Meditative Pilgrimage

The narrative of the Ascension presented in the Munich Ivory begins with the arrival of the women at the tomb and the discovery that the Resurrection has occurred. This story is recounted in all four of the Gospels.[40] In the Gospel of Matthew,

In the end of the sabbath, when it began to dawn towards the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalen and the other Mary, to see the sepulcher. And behold there was a great earthquake. For an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and coming rolled back the stone and sat upon it. And for fear of him, the guards were struck with terror and became as dead men. And the angel answering, said to the women: Fear not you: for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here. For he is risen, as he said. Come, and see the place where the lord was laid…[41]

In the Gospel of Mark, it is Mary Magdalen, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome who go to see the sepulcher. When they arrive, the stone has already been rolled back from the entrance, and a man in a white robe inside the tomb announces the Resurrection to them.[42] Then, in Luke, Mary Magdalen, Joanna, Mary of James and “the other women” arrive at the sepulcher to find the stone rolled back, and two “men shining in apparel” tell them of the Resurrection.[43] Finally, in John, Mary Magdalen discovers the empty sepulcher, then weeps at the tomb before two angels announce to her that the Resurrection has occurred.[44] Though the number and identity of the figures present at the tomb differs in each of the Gospels, by the fourth century a general iconography of the scene had been established in which a group of three women discovered the vacant tomb, which was guarded by an angel or a group of male figures.[45] This iconographic type is present in the Munich Ivory, in which the three Marys approach from the right, and are greeted by a man seated in front of the tomb. The seated figure appears to be the angel from the Gospel of Matthew, who rolls back the rock and sits upon it before announcing the Resurrection to the women.

The two figures who stand behind the tomb can be identified using another passage from the Gospel of Matthew:

… the chief priests and Pharisees gathered together to Pilate, saying: Sir, we have remembered, that the seducer said, while he was yet alive: After three days I will rise again. Command therefore the sepulcher to be guarded until the third day: lest perhaps his disciples come and steal him away and say to the people: He is risen from the dead. And the last error shall be worse than the first. Pilate saith to them: You have a guard. Go, guard it as you know. And they departing, made the sepulcher sure, sealing the stone and setting the guards.[46]

John Dominic Crossan has noted that, outside of the two references to the guards in the Gospel of Matthew, the only other mention of the placement of guards at the tomb can be found in the Apocryphal Gospel of Peter from the Nag Hammadi library.[47] Regarding the Resurrection, this Gospel states:

The scribes and Pharisees and elders, having gathered together with one another, having heard all that the people were murmuring and beating their breasts, saying that ‘If at his death these very great signs happened, behold how just he was,’ and feared (especially the elders) and came before Pilate, begging him and saying, ‘Give over soldiers to us in order that we may safeguard his burial place for three days, lest, having come, his disciples steal him, and the people accept that he is risen from the death, and they do us wrong.’ But Pilate gave over to them Petronius the centurion with soldiers to safeguard the sepulcher… But in the night in which the Lord’s day dawned, when the soldiers were safeguarding it two by two in every watch, there was a loud voice in heaven; and they saw that the heavens were opened and that two males who had much radiance had come down from there and come near the sepulcher…[48]

Crossan suggests that the version of the stationing of the guards at the tomb present in Matthew was adapted from the original text in the Gospel of Peter. Though the number of guards assigned to monitor the tomb is only specified in the apocryphal account, there is a great deal of similarity between the two.[49] In both versions, the placement of a guard at the entrance to the tomb ensures that Christ’s followers cannot break into the tomb and steal the body of Christ in order to make his prophecy appear true. Thus, the women at the tomb, the angel, and the soldiers in these accounts simultaneously bear witness to and validate the Resurrection. Their primary function is to establish that the Resurrection, without which the Ascension would be impossible, has occurred. Though no one witnessed Christ’s physical resurrection, all of these figures were present in the moments following it, and function in the ivory to remind the viewer of the seminal event without which the Ascension would not have taken place.

The ivory, understood in the context of medieval ideas concerning visuality and pilgrimage, allowed the believer to become an active participant and witness to the sacred event. The compression of space and time made possible by meditation on the plaque transports the viewer to Golgotha to discover, in company with the three Marys, the empty tomb. Through a process of meditative pilgrimage, the viewer of the ivory could move to the Holy Land to experience the events surrounding the Resurrection first-hand. There are two further elements in this section of the plaque which emphasize the importance of the act of witnessing and suggest that the ivory could function as a tool of meditative pilgrimage. The first element is the use of gestures which appeal to the viewer’s emotional engagement with the imagery, and the second is the copying of specific architectural models which recall the Holy Land.

In the fourth century, a new iconography of gesture developed in Christian art that conveyed an introspective sorrow, indicating a meditation on the past. According to Henry Maguire, there was a move in this period toward a representation of sorrow that concentrated on an inner contemplative grief rather than a violent display of suffering that manifested itself in the form of dramatic physical action.[50] This move away from the external presentation of sorrow was presumably due to the influence of Christian writers like John Chrysostom, who suggested that only restrained gestures were appropriate, since excessively emphatic displays of grief over the death of Jesus Christ would counter the message of hope communicated by his Resurrection.[51] Included in this iconography of restrained gesture were the raising of the hands to the mouth, and the veiling of the head in order to cover the mouth, both of which appear in the group of three Marys in the Munich Ivory.[52] The contemplative nature of these depictions of sorrow is of particular import for the analysis of the plaque as a tool for meditative pilgrimage, as the three Marys provide templates for right action to the viewer who seeks to witness the events of the Resurrection through contemplation of past events.

David Connolly, Jonathan Sumption and Jeanne Vilette have all noted the importance of emotional engagement with works of art in the performance of meditative pilgrimage. Connolly highlights the utility of engaging the various senses of the body as a means of drawing the viewer into the space of the image. Such bodily engagement, he argues, imbues the work with synesthetic and performative qualities that make the viewer a more active participant in the material that is presented.[53] In a discussion of the services held at Jerusalem during Holy Week in the fourth century, Sumption notes that pilgrims were frequently overcome with emotion – particularly in the case of Good Friday services, during which the relics of the Passion were displayed as accounts of the crucifixion were read to the crowd. The pilgrim Egeria described one such service, recording that “everyone present was overwhelmed by emotion and the strongest men there could not contain their tears.”[54] Vilette notes that the gestures and attitudes of the three women in the Munich Ivory manifest their surprise and their emotion, and indicate a tendency on their part toward a psychological interest and even toward action.[55]

Emotional engagement with the work allowed the viewer to become an active participant in the scene. The visceral response that the viewer could have, either to the physical presence in the holy site or to an event described in a text or depicted properly in a work of art, allowed for the compression of historical past and physical present into a singularly impactful experience. Such emotional investments could be heightened further by reading scripture associated with the scene depicted. In this case, a reading from the Gospel of John, in which Mary Magdalen stands weeping before the open tomb, could heighten the emotion depicted in the image itself, thus thrusting the viewer even further into the event as an eyewitness.[56]

Richard Krautheimer’s assertion that the copying of architectural spaces allowed the viewer to be symbolically transported to the Holy Land suggests another way this transference could take place. In the case of the Munich Ivory, the tomb does not appear as a simple cave, as described in the Gospels, but rather as a Late Antique mausoleum. The structure has been identified as a representation of the Anastasis Rotunda from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.[57] This church, which functioned to mark the site as the location where the historical events of the crucifixion and burial of Christ took place, was constructed between 324 and 350, when the growing interest in loci sancti saw the development of the practice of pilgrimage to holy sites. The Anastasis rotunda contained the Holy Sepulcher itself, the site of the entombment and the Resurrection, and by the end of the fourth century had become an important site of pilgrimage.[58] Krautheimer states that all that was needed to suggest the Anastasis Rotunda was its most unique and recognizable features, including its circular shape and a reproduction of the tomb.[59] A copy of exactly this sort can be found in the Munich Ivory, where the little building is topped with a round, domed space.

This aspect of the Munich Ivory allows for it to be read a guide for the medieval pilgrim. Just as the writings of early Christian pilgrims contained descriptions of various loci sancti that would allow the reader to be transported to the Holy Land through a process of meditative pilgrimage, so too did the Munich Ivory. In its presentation of a contemporary structure that had been constructed to venerate one of Christendom’s most holy sites, the ivory plaque of the Ascension is explicitly bound to the traditions of literary and physical pilgrimage to Jerusalem. As a result, the ivory could be used as a meditative tool in much the same way as its textual counterparts, the pilgrimage guides.

The biblical account of the Ascension is not as detailed as that of the Resurrection. In the Gospels, it is mentioned only in Mark and Luke, and both references are rather brief. In Mark, it is said that “the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God.”[60] Luke describes that “it came to pass, whilst he blessed them, he departed from them and was carried up into heaven.”[61] The fullest biblical description of the event is found in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, which recounts:

when he had said these things, while they looked on, he was raised up: and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they were beholding him going up to heaven, behold two men stood by them in white garments. Who also said: Ye men of Galilee, why stand you looking up to heaven? This Jesus who is taken from you into heaven, shall so come as you have seen him going into heaven.[62]

This version of the Ascension from Acts is most closely related to the scene depicted in the Munich Ivory, though some of the details found in the image are not accounted for in the text. In this section of the ivory, Jesus grasps the hand of God and climbs into heaven while two men in crouched positions appear to witness the event in the space below him. While this description of Christ being lifted into heaven matches the scene in the ivory, the postures of the men in the space below do not suggest that they are the men who speak to the Apostles in Acts. Given the early date of the ivory in relation to the establishment of the feast day of the Ascension, it is likely that the plaque contains some elements that were not maintained in the iconography of the following centuries, as in the case of the two men in the space below Christ. Instead, these figures may be drawn from an apocryphal text which did not become part of the canonical Bible in the following centuries, and was thus omitted from later versions of the image.[63] If this is taken to be the case, the figures may be read as the apostles Peter and James.

Both Weitzmann and Cartlidge independently put forth the Apocryphon Jacobi, a letter written by James some time before the start of the third century, as the most likely source for the iconography of the Munich Ivory.[64] In this version of the Ascension,

the Lord answered and said to us:… “But now I shall ascend to the place from which I have come… For today I am obliged to take (my place) at the right hand of my Father. Now I have said my last word to you. I shall part from you. For a chariot of wind has taken me up…”
When he said these things, he went away. And we knelt down, I and Peter, and gave thanks, and sent our hearts up to heaven. We heard with our ears and saw with our eyes the sound of wars and trumpet call and a great commotion.
And when we passed beyond that place, we sent our minds up further. And we saw with our eyes and heard with our ears hymns and angelic praises and angelic jubilation. And heavenly majesties were hymning, and we ourselves were jubilant.
After this, we also desired to send our spirits above to the Majesty. And when we ascended, we were permitted neither to see nor to hear anything. For the rest of the disciples called to us and questioned us: “What is it that you have heard from the Master?” And, “What has he said to you?” And, “Where has he gone?”
And we answered them: “He has ascended…”[65]

Peter and James’ role as witnesses not only to the Ascension but also to the heavens is central to this passage. Here, the two men make a mental pilgrimage of their own, as they send their hearts and their minds up into the heavens. Rather than visiting the holy sites in Jerusalem, they make a meditative voyage to the quintessential Holy Land: heaven. By “sending their minds up further,” they perform meditative practices in order to transcend space and time, and to witness the angelic choir. As such, they perform exactly the kind of meditation that the viewer and the pilgrim must accomplish in order to reach the Holy Land and experience biblical events. Sensory perception also plays a large role in this passage. James describes that he and Peter “saw with their eyes and heard with their ears” the commotion and the angelic jubilation of the heavens. Emotional and sensorial engagement is presented as an essential element of meditative pilgrimage in this version of the Ascension narrative. Meditation allows the eyes and the ears of the two men to experience the heavens in a fully corporeal way, even though the body itself is not transported. For Peter and James, this bodily experience functions to transcend space in order for them to experience the heavens.

In the Munich Ivory, the two men who kneel before Christ may be read as Peter and James, the two disciples who witnessed the Ascension and gained access to the heavens through meditation. Their presence serves a dual purpose. First, they may be read as witnesses to the Ascension in much the same way that the three Marys, the angel, and the soldiers were witnesses to the Resurrection. That is, through their presence there, they work to confirm that the miraculous event that took place on the Mount of Olives. Second, the figures may be read as templates for right action, reminding the pilgrims that meditation can result in symbolic transportation to the Holy Land. As Peter and James were able to see and hear the heavens, so too may pilgrims witness sacred events and locations through similar meditative practices. Reading texts like the Apocryphon Jacobi and Acts while viewing the plaque would have further strengthened the link between the apostles’ transcendent visions and the pilgrims’ own experiences. By elevating the heart and the mind and focusing on the biblical narrative presented in the ivory, the pilgrim can transcend space and time in order to bear witness to the events that took place at this locus sanctus.


The Munich Ivory should be considered more than simply a stage in the development of early Christian iconography of the Ascension. It should also be viewed as an object of meditative pilgrimage. In its subject, arrangement and details, the ivory reflects early Christian conceptions of space and time as two barriers to experiencing the truth of Christian miracles, which can be overcome by faith and meditation. Particularly in its inclusion of the figures of the three Marys, the guards, and the apostles, emphasis is placed on the importance of witnessing sacred events. Though many of the elements found in the ivory became part of the standard iconography of the Ascension in the following centuries, the peculiarities of these secondary groups suggests that they were intended to provide a template for pilgrimage for the viewer who stood before the plaque. The figures in the Munich Ivory function to recall the stories of the Ascension and the Resurrection while simultaneously providing a model for viewer response. Particularly in the case of the two apostles located below Christ in the scene of the Ascension, the figures in the ivory model the ways in which meditation allows for barriers of space and time to be broken down in order to access sacred events and loci sancti.

A comparison of the ivory with written pilgrimage guides suggests that the plaque functioned as a tool for meditative pilgrimage, through which the viewer could be symbolically transported in both space and time to Jerusalem in order to witness the events of the Ascension and Resurrection first-hand. The presence of a replica of the Anastasis Rotunda of the Holy Sepulcher provides particularly strong evidence that the plaque functioned in a similar manner to texts like Egeria’s Travels or the itinerary maps of Matthew Paris, as these works provide contemporary descriptions of the holy sites for the benefit of would-be pilgrims who could not voyage to Jerusalem themselves. These descriptions aimed to provide the pilgrim with a vision of the holy site that would allow them imagine their presence there. By reciting scripture or recalling biblical narratives while imagining loci sancti, pilgrims could erase physical and temporal divides in order to act as witness to the sacred events that inspired their faith.

Lindsey Hansen is a third-year PhD student at Indiana University, Bloomington. She received an MA from Stony Brook University. She studies the art of the High Gothic period, focusing on the formation of identity in the sculptural programs of cathedrals in northern France. She is also interested in the ethics of reconstruction, and examines the ways in which restoration may alter the symbolic content of works of art.

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Acts of Witnessing: The Munich Ivory of the Ascension, Medieval Visuality and Pilgrimage by Lindsey Hansen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

[1] Most scholars examine the Munich Ivory alongside other Late Antique images in an attempt to situate it within a larger iconographic tradition, or to identify the workshop at which it was made. Very few studies have treated the content and potential meanings of the plaque independently. On the development of early medieval iconography, see C.P. Charalambidis, “Une interpretation théologique de l’ivoire du ‘Bayerisches Nationalmuseum’ de Munich,” Byzantina 7 (1975), pp. 33-41; Jean Vilette, La Résurrection du Christ dans l’art chrétien du IIe au VIIe siècle (Paris: H. Laurent, 1957), pp. 83-87; David R. Cartlidge and James Keith Elliott, Art and the Christian Apocrypha (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 132; Herbert Kessler, “Scenes from the Acts of the Apostles on some Early Christian Ivories,” Gesta 18, no. 1, “Papers Related to Objects in the Exhibition ‘Age of Spirituality,’” The Metropolitan Museum of Art (November 1977-February 1978) (1979), pp. 109-119; Gertrud Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, vol. 2, trans. Janet Seligman (Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1971); and Ernest T. Dewald, “The Iconography of the Ascension,” American Journal of Archaeology 19, no. 3 (July-September 1915), p. 279. On location of production and material, see John Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books Inc., 1970), pp. 20-22; K. Wessel, “Eine Gruppe Oberitalischer Elfenbeinarbeiten,” Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archaeologischen Instituts 63-64 (1948-1949), pp. 117-122; and Herbert L. Kessler, “On the State of Medieval Art History,” The Art Bulletin 70, no. 2 (June 1988), pp. 166-187. For discussions that address both use and iconography, see Robin Margaret Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art (New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 156-166 and Herbert L. Kessler, “Narrative Representations,” in The Age of Spirituality: late antique and early Christian art, third to seventh century: catalog of the exhibition at the Metropolitan Musem of Art, November 19, 1977, through February 12, 1978, ed. Kurt Weitzman (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979), pp. 454-455.

[2] Dewald, “The Iconography of the Ascension,” pp. 277-279.

[3] Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, pp. 20-21and Kessler, “Scenes from the Acts of the Apostles on Some Early Christian Ivories,” p. 109.

[4] For more information on the development of the iconography of the Ascension and its conflation with the veneration of the Virgin, see Dewald, “The Iconography of the Ascension,” pp. 282-291.

[5] Georgia Frank, “Pilgrims and the Eye of Faith,” in The Memory of the Eyes: Pilgrims to Living Saints in Christian Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), pp. 106-107. See also Richard Krautheimer, “Introduction to an ‘Iconography of Mediaeval Architecture,’” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 5 (1942), pp. 1-33.

[6] In his article “Imagined Pilgrimage in the Itinerary Maps of Matthew Paris,” Daniel Connolly uses the term “virtual pilgrimage” to describe the process by which readers of the Chronica majora were able to transport themselves to Jerusalem to experience loci sancti. This term is problematic, as the word “virtual” is associated with the contemporary world and the technological advances of the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I prefer the term “meditative pilgrimage,” as it more accurately describes the means by which medieval pilgrims could be transported to the holy land through practices of meditation and imagination.

[7] Frank, “Pilgrims and the Eye of Faith,” pp. 104-114.

[8] Ibid, p. 108.

[9] For more information on the experience of sacred time through compression of the present and the past, see Mary Campbell, The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400-1600 (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1988), pp. 25 and 33 and Jean-Daniel Dubois, “Un pèlerinage bible en main: L’itinéraire d’Egérie (381-384),” Moïse géographique: Recherches sur les représentations juives et chrétiennes de l’espace, ed. Alain Desreueaux and F. Schmidt (Paris: J. Vrin, 1988), pp. 55 and 73.

[10] Frank, “Pilgrims and the Eye of Faith,” p.106.

[11] The increasing interest in loci sancti in the third and fourth centuries was recorded in these literary accounts, and also by the explosion of architectural production in the period. Following the legalization of Christianity by the Edict of Milan in 324, the pagan buildings that had long stood on the Aelia Capitolina were destroyed, and a series of Christian structures marking the sites of Christ’s Passion were constructed. These included the Church of the Nativity, several structures including a church on the Mount of Olives and the church on Golgotha, among others. These buildings stand as testament to the increasing interest in holy places in the fourth century. For more information on the evolution of pilgrimage practices and early Christian pilgrims, see Jonathan Sumption, “The Steps of the Master,” in Pilgrimage: an Image of Mediaeval Religion (London: Faber & Faber, 1975), pp. 89-94 and John Wilkinson, “Early Christian Pilgrimage,” in Egeria’s Travels (Oxford: Aris & Phillips, 1999), pp. 4-8. On the development of loci sancti, see Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels, pp. 8-34.

[12] Paulinus of Nola, Epistulae 49.14, Letters of St. Paulinus of Nola, vol.2, trans. and ed. P.G. Walsh (Westminster, MD: Newmann Press, 1966-67), p.273.

[13] Sumption, Pilgrimage, pp. 89-90.

[14] Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels, p. 111.

[15] Sumption, Pilgrimage, p. 90.

[16] Ibid, p. 93.

[17] Kathryn M. “Den aflaet der heiliger stat Jherusalem ende des bercchs van Calvarien: Indulgenced Prayers for Mental Holy Land Pilgrimage in Manuscripts from the St. Agnes Convent in Maaseik,” Ons geestelijk erf 74, no. 3 (2000), pp. 211-254 and Matthew K. Connolly, “Imagined Pilgrimage in the Itinerary Maps of Matthew Paris,” The Art Bulletin 81, no. 4 (Dec., 1999), pp. 598-622.

[18] Rudy, “Den aflaet der heiliger stat Jherusalem ende des bercchs van Calvarien,” p. 212 and Connolly, “Imagined Pilgrimage in the Itinerary Maps of Matthew Paris,” p. 598.

[19] Rudy, “Den aflaet der heiliger stat Jherusalem ende des bercchs van Calvarien,” p. 215.

[20] Connolly, “Imagined Pilgrimage in the Itinerary Maps of Matthew Paris,” pp. 607-608 and “Den aflaet der heiliger stat Jherusalem ende des bercchs van Calvarien,” p. 215.

[21] See, for example, a passage from her description of Sinai preserved in Peter the Deacon’s Book on the Holy Places, where Egeria addresses her sisters: “I want you to be quite clear about these mountains, reverend ladies my sisters…” She addresses them again in her description of Charra: “At this church where originally Abraham’s house used to stand, which, as I have told you, was outside the city, there is also a martyrium. This, my ladies and reverend sisters, is the tomb of a certain holy monk…” Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels, pp. 110 and 137.

[22] Plato, The Republic, ed. R.E. Allen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 227-262. See also Reginald Allen, Plato’s ‘Euthyphro’ and earlier theory of Forms (London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1970).

[23] Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels, pp. 60-62.

[24] Richard Krautheimer, “Introduction to an ‘Iconography of Medieval Architecture,’” p. 16.

[25] Ibid, p. 17.

[26] Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, pp. 20-21 and Kessler, “Scenes from the Acts of the Apostles on Some Early Christian Ivories,” p. 109.

[27] Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, p. 22.

[28] Ibid, pp. 20-21.

[29] Carolyn Joslin Watson, “The Program of the Brescia Casket,” Gesta 20, no. 2 (1981), p. 290.

[30] Ibid, pp. 290 and 297.

[31] The Brescia Casket measures 12.6 x 8.7 x 9.8 inches. Given these dimensions, it is likely that the Munich Ivory may have originally filled one of the side panels of an object similar to the Brescia Casket. Additionally, the two objects are stylistically similar in many respects. Both rely on movement and gesture to create discernible figure groups within the continuous narrative, as well as to direct the movement of the eye through the picture plane. Finally, the imagery of the Brescia Casket contains a number of scenes of biblical figures being raised from death (including Jonah, Lazarus, and the daughter of Jarius). In both ivories, the emphasis is placed on narratives of resurrection and witnessing miracles. For more information on the contents of the Brescia Casket, see Felicity Harley-McGowan, “Death is Swallowed Up in Victory: Scenes of Death in Early Christian Art and the Emergence of Crucifixion Iconography,” Cultural Studies Review 17, no. 1 (March 2011), pp. 108-109.

[32] This portion of the ivory has been identified as birds in an olive tree making reference to the Mount of Olives. See, for example, Charalambidis, “Une interpretation théologique de l’ivoire du ‘Bayerisches Nationalmuseum’ de Munich,” p. 35.

[33] See, for example, Kessler, “Scenes from the Acts of the Apostles on some Early Christian Ivories,” pp. 109-110; Charalambidis, “Une interpretation théologique de l’ivoire du ‘Bayerisches Nationalmuseum’ de Munich,” p. 35; Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, pp. 20-21; and Vilette, La Résurrection du Christ dans l’art chrétien du IIe au VIIe siècle, p. 84.

[34] Vilette, La Résurrection du Christ dans l’art chrétien du IIe au VIIe siècle, pp. 83-84; Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, pp. 162-164; Volbach, Early Christian Art, p. 329; Charalambidis, “Une interpretation théologique de l’ivoire du ‘Bayerisches Nationalmuseum’ de Munich,” p. 33; and Kessler, “Scenes from the Acts of the Apostles on Some Early Christian Ivories,” p. 110.

[35] C.P. Charalambidis suggests that the Munich Ivory was produced in response to a debate regarding the timeline of the Ascension. According to the Evangelists Luke and John, the Ascension took place on the same day as the Resurrection, whereas in the Acts of the Apostles, it took place forty days later. Early Church fathers including Aristides, Tertullian, Origen and Eusebius addressed this topic in their treatises. Charalambidis argues that the ivory allows for both ideas to coexist within the iconography of the panel. That is, placing the two scenes within the same frame but separating them into different registers, the idea that the Resurrection occurred directly after the Ascension could be present without contradicting the later idea that it occurred forty days later. Charalambidis, “Une interpretation théologique de l’ivoire de Munich,” pp. 36-39.

[36] Kessler, “Narrative Representations,” pp. 449-451.

[37] Ibid, p. 449.

[38] Ibid, pp. 449-450.

[39] Ibid, p. 451.

[40] It is important to note that, in the fourth century, a canonical version of the Bible did not yet exist. Instead, there were a variety of texts – some more authoritative than others – from which artists and writers could draw their inspiration. These included the Septuagint and the Vulgate, as well as a number of apocryphal or extra-biblical texts. The Septuagint, or LXX, was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible completed in Alexandria, Egypt by about 130 BC. This text, translated into a variety of Latin versions, was employed by a number of early Christian writers addressing the Old Testament (see, for example, Egeria’s use of the Septuagint in her travel writings. Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels, pp. 2-3). The documents that would become the New Testament, including gospels, epistles, homilies, and collections of teachings, were written by about 150 AD. By the end of the second century, a basic canon which included twenty-three books was taking shape, and by the late-fourth century there was a greater fixity in the order of these books. In 382, Pope Damasus I commissioned Saint Jerome to create a revised version of the Bible in Latin, which reworked previous Latin translations of the Septuagint and further codified the New Testament texts. Though Jerome’s Vulgate became the definitive version of the Bible in the later Middle Ages, it was not transmitted widely by the turn of the fifth century when the Munich Ivory was created. Therefore, the version of the Bible from which the ivory’s artist drew is uncertain. A comparison of the plaque with the texts of the Vulgate reveals a number of striking similarities between text and image. As a result, for the purposes of this study, selections from the Vulgate Gospels and Acts of the Apostles will be used in the discussion of the ivory’s narrative content. For more information on the evolution of Bible in the early Christian period, see Stephen Voorwinde, “The Formation of the New Testament Canon,” Vox Reformata 60 (1995), pp. 4-29 and Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development and Significance (Gloucestershire: Clarendon Press, 1997).

[41] Matt. 28.1-6. The Bible passages quoted here are drawn from, an online resource containing line-by-line Latin passages and English translations.

<[42] Mark 16.1-6.

[43] Luke 23.53-54 and 24.1-10.

[44] John 20.1-2 and 11-13.

[45] The earliest example of the three Marys iconography may be present in the baptistery at Dura Europos, where three women approach a square-shaped building in the lower register of the right wall fresco. For a discussion of the evolution of the three Marys imagery, see Jensen, “Christ’s empty tomb and ascension,” in Understanding Early Christian Art, pp. 162-167 and Vilette, La Résurrection du Christ dans l’art chrétien du IIe au VIIe siècle, pp. 83-84. For more information on the identification of the Marys present in the Bible and the roles that they play in the interpretation of the Gospels, see Valerie Abrahamsen, “Human and Divine: The Marys in Early Christian Tradition,” in A Feminist Companion to Mariology, ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Maria Mayo-Robbins (New York: T&T Clark International, 2005) pp. 164-168. For a general discussion of the development of Resurrection iconography, see Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, vol. 2.

[46] Matt. 27.62-66.

[47] John Dominic Crossan, Four Other Gospels: Shadows on the Contours of Canon (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985), p. 125. Kurt Weitzmann and David R. Cartlidge have both suggested that the iconography of the Munich Ivory drew upon two apocryphal texts from the Nag Hammadi: The Apocryphon of James and the Gospel of Peter. These works contain descriptions of the Resurrection and Ascension that emphasize the importance of witnessing the events. The account in James emphasizes the necessity of stationing guards at the sepulcher as a means of providing proof that the body of Christ was not taken by his disciples; the Gospel of Peter provides a first-hand account of the Ascension. It is thought that the texts were originally written in Greek by the middle of the second century and later translated into Coptic, the language in which the extant manuscript fragments are written. However, the origin and transmission history of these documents is uncertain. The Egyptian provenance of the texts has recently been questioned, and many scholars now believe that they are Syrian-Palestinian in origin. Neither Weitzmann nor Cartlidge provide definitive evidence that the artist of the ivory would have been aware of these texts. Nevertheless, the emphasis that the Munich Ivory places on the act of witnessing is apparent; the apocryphal accounts of Peter and James simply provide an additional dynamic element to the reading of the image. On the identification of apocryphal texts, see Kurt Weitzmann, ed., Age of Spirituality, catalog of the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979), p. 455 and Cartlidge and Elliott, Art and the Christian Apocrypha, p. 222. For more information on the Apocryphon Jacobi, see Frances E. Williams, “The Apocryphon of James,” in The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hamadi Codices, ed. James M. Robinson (Leiden: Brill, 1984), p. 29 and Helmut Koester, Introduction to the New Testament: History and Literature of Early Christianity (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2000), p. 230.

[48] Gos. Pet. 7.25-36.

[49] Crossan, Four Other Gospels, p. 149.

[50] Maguire, “Sorrow in Middle Byzantine Art,” pp. 126, 133.

[51] Ibid, pp. 130-132.

[52] For more information about the poses included in the iconography of gestures of sorrow, see “The Hand Raised to the Head: Standing Figures,” and “The Veiling of the Head,” both sections in Maguire, “Sorrow in Middle Byzantine Art,” pp. 140-151 and 156-158.

[53] Connolly, “Imagined Pilgrimage in the Itinerary Maps of Matthew Paris,” p. 606.

[54] Sumption, Pilgrimage, p. 90.

[55] Vilette, La Résurrection du Christ dans l’art chrétien du IIe au VIIe siècle, pp. 84 and 87.

[56] John 20.11-13.

[57] Volbach, Early Christian Art, 328.

[58] Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels, pp. 34-39.

[59] Krautheimer, “Introduction to an ‘Iconography of Medieval Art,’” p. 15.

[60] Mark 16.19.

[61] Luke 24.51.

[62] Acts 1.9-11.

[63] As the Bible in its current form did not exist in the fourth and fifth centuries, a greater variety of texts may have been available to iconographers of the period. For more information on the development of the Bible in the Middle Ages, see note 38 above.

[64] Weitzmann, Age of Spirituality, p. 455 and Cartlidge and Elliott, Art and the Christian Apocrypha, p. 222. See also Kessler, “Scenes from the Acts of the Apostles on Some Early Christian Ivories,” p.110. Again, caution must be used when identifying the Apocryphon of James as the source for the iconography of the Munich Ivory, as no definitive evidence has been found that links the text and the image. However, the content of the two works is strikingly similar, and provides an interesting potential reading of the plaque.

[65] Barnstone, The Other Bible, 348-349.



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