In Fra Angelico’s depiction of Christ’s ascension, Mary occupies center stage. A monk at the monastery of San Marco in Florence in the 15th century, Fra Angelico painted the work to decorate the doors of a silver treasury for an oratory to be constructed near the chapel of the Santissima Annunziata in the church of the same name. The 11 apostles, two angels, and Mary are united in a circle in the lower half of the painting. Peter, with his keys, is identifiable at Mary’s right. The top and bottom borders of the composition contain Latin inscriptions on scrolls, citing Psalm 17:11, “And he ascended upon the cloud, and he flew upon the wings of the winds,” and Mark 16:19, “The Lord Jesus, after he had spoken, was taken up into heaven. The ending of Mark.” The painting is now in the Museum of San Marco in Florence.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) painted The Conversion of St. Paul to be paired with Crucifixion of St. Peter and to establish a theme of suffering in the private chapel of Monsignor Tiberio Cerasi, treasurer general under Pope Clement VIII, in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Caravaggio does not embellish the narrative with reference to an apparition of God or angels (Acts 9:1–6, 22:5–11, 26:13). The psychological dimension is very modern: Saul, the persecutor of Christians, is knocked flat on his back before the viewers’ eyes and almost into their space. He is converted through the penetrating light of God—“a light from heaven flashed about him” (Acts 9:3). He does not react in fear but opens his arms to receive as much of the light as possible. His eyes are closed to indicate the blindness that he endures for three days. His commission to be the apostle of the gentiles is symbolized by Caravaggio’s depiction of him in Roman garb. The presence of the horse, while missing in the biblical text, is a common feature in visual depictions of the event, underscoring his standing as a Roman patrician and explaining how he “fell to the ground” (Acts 9:4).
The Resurrection of Lazarus, a triptych from 1461, is the earliest documented work by the French Renaissance artist Nicolas Froment. What is distinctive about it is the scene on the viewer’s right, in which Mary anoints Jesus’ feet as her brother, Lazarus, looks on (John 12:2–3). From the beginning of the interpretive tradition, Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, had been confused with Mary Magdalene and the anonymous woman who anointed Jesus in the home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36–50), a composite solidified in a sermon by Pope Gregory the Great near the end of the sixth century. As a result, most of the images of the anointing of Jesus in medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art are set in Simon the Pharisee’s home and frequently carry iconographic elements associated with Mary Magdalene (portrayed with red hair and often in a prostitute’s attire). Here Froment presents a decorously dressed Mary, complete with head covering. Although there is apparent commotion among the onlookers in the background of the scene, the anointing itself is presented as a quiet and dignified act of devotion, in parallel with the opposite panel, which shows Martha, in nunlike attire, kneeling piously before Jesus in order to tell him her brother has died (John 11:32).
Painted by Michele Tosini (called Michele di Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, 1503–1577) in 1565 at the height of his career in Florence, this work combines the baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:21) with the three temptations of Christ (Luke 4:1–9). It should be read in a counterclockwise direction. The temptation to turn stones into bread, on the right, shows a hunched-over devil in discussion with an attentive Christ. “Command these stones be made bread,” the tempter says to Christ. In the second temptation, directly above the baptism, the devil leads Christ up the mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. Christ raises his right hand as if prepared to respond, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Tosini draws a contrast between Christ’s humility in the center of the painting toward John and his defiance of the devil. Christ and the devil stand on top of the dome of the Jerusalem Temple in the third temptation. The devil is suggesting that Christ throw himself down and be protected by the angels. Christ responds by raising his right hand in refusal.