REMBRANDT Harmenszoon van Rijn
(b. 1606, Leiden, d. 1669, Amsterdam)

The Ascension of Christ

Oil on canvas, 93 x 69 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Catalogue number: Bredius 557.

Rembrandt received a commission from the court in about 1628 through Constantijn Huygens, secretary to the Prince of Orange, for five paintings of the Passion of Christ. The series started with the Raising of the Cross and Descent from the Cross. He was hired to create small versions of Rubens famous altarpieces in Antwerp, the Raising of the Cross and the Descent from the Cross. Huygens asked Rembrandt to produce paintings less than one-twenty-fifth the size of the Rubenses. It must also have been agreed between Huygens and Rembrandt that the artist would inset himself into the composition of the Descent from the Cross as one of the followers of Christ who eased the body to the ground.

The two paintings, finished in 1633 are plainly modelled on Rubens's versions of those subjects. When they were delivered in 1633, a new commission followed, for three more paintings of scenes from the Passion of Christ, The Entombment, The Resurrection and The Ascension. The first to be delivered, early in 1636, was The Ascension, the last in iconographic order. If in the Raising and Descent Rembrandt had vied with Rubens, in the Ascension he had moved back in time to the Venetian master Titian. In a composition based on one of Titian's most famous works, the Assumption of the Virgin in the Church of Frari in Venice, Rembrandt created an image of earth, sky, and heaven, with mortals taking leave of a divine creature being raised by angels to the Godhead itself.

The reception of the Ascension was not enthusiastic and did not lead to new commissions from The Hague. The final two pieces from the commission of 1633, The Entombment and The Resurrection, were completed in 1639. The series was finally completed only in 1646, with a commission for two other canvases with scenes from the life of Christ as an infant, the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Circumcision (now lost, it is known from a copy in the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig).