The Stammheim Ascension Missal is a religious text that originated from the 12th century and showcases the narrative religious themes of art during the Romanesque Period. Like many works of its time, the missal utilizes imagery to portray a Biblical truth that is central to Christian theology. The Stammheim Ascension Missal consists of eight frames that feature key figures in the Old and New Testament of the Bible. In totality, the frames of the missal are combined to establish the divinity of Christ by explaining the interconnectedness between the ascension of the figures in the Old Testament and the final ascension of Jesus Christ. By demonstrating the parallel between the ascension of Christ and key Old Testament passages, the missal delivers the theme of the authority of Christ and the supremacy of the New Testament over the Old Testament.
The Stammheim Ascension Missal is a decorative text that was created during the 12th century at the Saint Michael monastery in Hildesheim, Germany. The work is indicative of the religious themes that dominated works of art during the Romanesque Period. According to Marilyn Stockstad and Michael W. Cothren, Romanesque is a term that is applied to arts from between the mid-eleventh century to the second half of the twelfth century (Stockstad and Cothren 455). The term Romanesque literally means “in a Roman manner,” and describes the adherence of Romanesque architecture to Roman styles (455). Yet, during the period, the dominance of Christian themes lent the period a distinct style that deviated from the secular themes of Roman works. Romanesque artwork is marked by its narrative and iconic figural imagery that served to display Christian doctrine and moral teachings (455). The Stammheim Ascension Missal reflects this theme through its portrayal of theological teachings.
The missal titled Ascension is an illustration that contains eight frames featuring figures in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. At the center of is an image of Jesus Christ ascending to heaven as his disciples on the left and right of the image look upon him. In the upper right corner, the Old Testament figure Elijah is featured in a red chariot of fire. To the lower right corner, is a miniature drawing of the Genesis figure Enoch rising to heaven. At the bottom center is a miniature frame that features King David pointing above into the air, with his hand extending outside of the frame to point at Jesus above him. The lower left frame of the missal portrays Ezekiel being elevated into the air by two men. Finally, at the top is the figure of Moses looking upon an eagle’s nest with a mother eagle flying above three baby eagles. The mainframe featuring Jesus is separated from the miniature frames by a golden border that forms the shape of a crucifix. The frame consists of checkered gold and brown patterns and the artist uses perspective to create a three-dimensional frame that gives the appearance of the old testament characters being contained within separate boxes that are in the background of the painting.
The missal provides contextual clues to its main message through the inscriptions of Biblical passages that are contained along the border of the illustration. Each passage corresponds to the figure that is represented within the frames of the missal. First, the frame containing the character of Enoch references Genesis 5.24, which reads, “Then Enoch walked with God and he was no longer here for God took him” (Holy Bible, New American Version, Gen.5.24). The significance of this passage is that it describes how Enoch ascended into heaven after having lived for over 300 years rather than dying. This passage foreshadows the manner in which Christ rose to heaven.
The second passage is contained below the bottom center frame featuring King David. The passage originated from psalms and reads, “God mounts the throne amid shouts of joy” (Psalms 47.6). Following this passage, the verse below the frame of Ezekiel reads, “Then shall they know that I am the Lord when I disperse them among the nations and scatter them over foreign lands” (Ezekiel 12.15). Both passages reference a ruler ascending to take the throne and to lead over affairs on Earth. In the upper left corner, the corresponding passage reads, “As an eagle incites its nestlings forth by hovering over its brood, so he spread his wings to receive them and bore them up on his pinions” (Deuteronomy 32.11). To the left, the image of Elijah is accompanied by a verse that reads, “As they walked on conversing, a flaming chariot and flaming horses came between them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind” (II Kings 2.11). Featured at the top of the illustration, parallel to the image of Jesus, the passages from Deuteronomy and II Kings extend upon the metaphor of the ascension to heaven.
The center panel contains three passages that are obtained from the New Testament. At the center-left of the missal is a reference to John 14.18, which reads, “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” To the right side of the panel is a reference to John 15.26, which reads, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name – he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you.” Finally, at the top of the panel to the center of the illustration is a reference to Matthew 28.20, which reads:
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold that I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matthew 28.20).
Together, these three verses from the New Testament foreshadow the resurrection of Christ and connect the crucifixion of Christ to the Old Testament passages referenced within the missal. By attributing the resurrection to authoritative passages in the Old Testament, the final passage at the top of the work establishes Jesus’s authority as the Son of God and establishes that he has risen to take his rightful place on the throne in the kingdom of heaven.
In addition to textual clues presented by the references Biblical passages, the work unifies its theme through several visual elements. First, the spatial layout of the miniature frames conveys the theme of the supremacy of Jesus Christ. The first visual element that conveys the relative importance of Jesus Christ is his position at the center of the illustration. Though there are five Old Testament characters in total, they are all included in peripheral segments of the missal and are only allotted smaller segments of space. Additionally, the use of perspective to create the appearance that the Old Testament figures are located behind the central frame presents the theme that Jesus Christ is more prominent than the other figures. While the frame containing King David is more prominent than the other Old Testament frames, it features King David pointing upwards toward the figure of Jesus, placing David in a subordinate position. Further, while the disciples share the center frame with Jesus, they are below the rising Christ, demonstrating Christ’s rule of each figure.
Additionally, the containment of the Old Testament characters in isolated boxes demonstrates that while the Old Testament is connected to the New Testament, the figures of the Old Testament are distinct from Jesus Christ. In the center panel, Christ appears to rise majestically and gracefully into the air. However, the Old Testament characters are more awkwardly positioned, conveying the message that the Old Testament characters are mere mortals and do not possess the same theological status as Jesus. For example, the simple box construction of Elijah’s chariot of fire demonstrates that he is merely mortal. Further, Moses’s limitations are demonstrated as he looks upon an eagle that possesses the ability to fly. In the frame where Enoch is rising to heaven, the foot of a disciple breaks through the panel and stands upon Enoch’s head, suppressing his ascension. Thus, the visual message is conveyed that Enoch falls short of the divinity that is possessed by Jesus Christ. Finally, Ezekiel’s limitations are demonstrated by his reliance on humanitarian assistance in order to rise above the ground. Though the Old Testament figures have also risen to the heavens, the illustration conveys that their role was merely to foreshadow the resurrection of Christ.
Finally, the authority of Jesus is expressed through the use of color. First, the use of the color red throughout the image demonstrates the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made on the crucifix. As critic William Wilson notes, Christ does not appear to suffer in the Stammheim missals, which demonstrates that his death was portrayed as a psychologically significant event (Wilson). However, the red hues in the chariot of fire, the robe of the disciple standing at the right of the painting, robe of Ezekiel and the halo around Enoch’s head all portray the sacrifice to be made through the shedding of Jesus’s blood. Further, Jesus rises above a square box that is also red. By placing Jesus above the color red and limiting this color to the other figures in the image, the illustration asserts that Jesus is distinct from the other figures because only he has risen above death through his resurrection.
Additionally, the colors serve to enforce the theme that Christ rose to the throne to take his place as the ruler in the Kingdom of heaven. The three dominant tones in the work are gold, brown, and green. While the color gold is symbolic of heaven, the colors green and brown are symbolic of earth. The center frame features a border that is checkered with both gold and brown, which represents the theme that Jesus rules over both heaven and earth. The Old Testament figures are contained within green borders, demonstrating that their authority is limited to the earth. Further, while each figure is contained within a green border, an opening at the top center frame emerges, revealing a multi-colored light. As the work demonstrates, Jesus Christ is the only figure who was able to successfully transcend the physical realm.
Finally, the portrayal of the violet robe was worn by Jesus and Mary Magdalene symbolize that Christ fulfilled prophecy through his resurrection. Luke 23.45 references the tearing of a veil on the temple when Jesus is crucified. This cross-references Exodus 26.31-33 where the veil is first mentioned as an accessory in the temple that separates the rest of the temple from the holy of holies. By draping the veil around Jesus, the work symbolizes that Jesus removed the barrier that existed between humans and God through his sacrifice. Because Mary was the first figure that Jesus revealed himself to after his crucifixion, the image confirms her role as the first disciple to establish that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament. Thus, the placement of the violet robe in the image underscores the connection between Old Testament prophecy and the ascension of Christ.
Though the Stammheim Ascension Missal features eight separate panels, each panel is connected to a unified narrative that conveys the theological message of the work. The missal conveys the theme that Jesus Christ fulfilled Old Testament prophecy through his death and resurrection while distinguishing the role of Jesus as the Son of God from the role of Old Testament figures as prophets. Through correlated Biblical verses, symbolic images, and color, the image connects the Old Testament to the New Testament while elevating the ultimate supremacy and authority of the New Testament.
New American Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.
Stockstad, Marilyn, & Cothren, Michael W. Art History. New York: Prentice Hall, 2011. Print.
Wilson, William. “Inside the Medieval Mind.” Los Angeles Times. 28 Jul. 1998. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.