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Connecting art & faith: Nicolò di Giacomo

Nicolò di Giacomo da Bologna. (Italian, c. 1325–c. 1403.) The Ascension of Christ. Last quarter of the 14th century (1370-75?). Historiated initial P, in tempera, gold leaf and ink on vellum, cut from an illuminated antiphonary. Thrivent Collection of Religious Art.

Gathered disciples look up in amazement as Christ soars across the sky in this image of the Ascension. The crowd’s animated faces and gestures convey their astonishment at the sight of Jesus above. Dressed in white, Christ carries the banner of victory over his right shoulder. His gaze is not directed at the crowd below; rather, it is fixed upward toward Heaven, in the direction of his ascension.

The lively scene is rendered inside the letter P. This decorated initial was cut out of a large choir book, called an antiphonary, used by clergy during worship services. The illustration not only decorates the letter, but the image and text also interact, demonstrating the artist’s creativity. Christ is shown grasping on to the top of the P with his left hand, apparently using the initial to propel himself forward and upward.

This Ascension scene is unique. Typical representations of this scene show only Jesus’s feet as he ascends to Heaven. But Nicolò di Giacomo cleverly repositions the figure to fit inside the letter P by depicting Christ ascending slightly horizontally.

The artist is using the format of the illustrated, painted book to innovate toward a new way of depicting the Risen Christ. In doing so, he also has created an intimate, delightful scene of Christ and his followers close together in this moment, full of prayerful wonder and devotion toward God. Imagine those standing or sitting before this book, with this dynamic image in their minds and hearts, as they sing out in praise.

Nicolò di Giacomo was an important illuminator working in 14th century Bologna, Italy. The artist and his workshop illuminated a wide variety of religious and secular texts, including private devotional books, legal volumes and books of poetry and drama.

Choral manuscripts from the medieval period were large and would be propped up during services so that members of the choir could read them from a distance. In the original manuscript, this decorated letter P introduced a line of text from the Acts of the Apostles, for the Feast of the Ascension: “To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during 40 days, and speaking of the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).

Joanna Reiling Lindell is the director and curator of the Thrivent Art Collection.

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