The Ascension is the best of only three religious paintings by John Constable (1776-1837), all of which were commissioned for churches in his native Stour Valley. It was commissioned in 1821, the year that he completed The Hay Wain, as an altarpiece for St Michael’s Church, Manningtree. The other earlier two were painted for the parish churches of Brantham in Suffolk and Nayland in Essex.
There is debate as to whether the painting represents the Resurrection or the Ascension. One of Constable’s models would have been a sketch of The Resurrection by Benjamin West, who was in turn influenced by Raphael. He would also have seen the window by Sir Joshua Reynolds depicting The Resurrection in Salisbury Cathedral when visiting his great friend John Fisher. Whichever it represents, this figure of Christ floating in the sky surrounded by clouds dates from the same period as his sky studies in which he was developing his own religious and landscape ideas.
From the beginning the painting had a somewhat chequered career. It was commissioned by Edward Alston, a brewer from Manningtree and Constable’s cousin by marriage, for £200, in order to gain favour with the Archdeacon of Colchester, the Revd John Jefferson, who was responsible for licensing public houses. When Jefferson not only refused to license Alston’s hostelries, but also died in December 1821, Alston reneged on the contract at a great loss to Constable. In spite of the financial loss, Constable did complete the painting although the lower half shows less commitment than the upper. It was installed in 1822 as the reredos of the newly built chancel of St Michael’s where it remained until the church was demolished in 1965.
The painting was acquired by the Revd Aubrey Moody for All Saints’, Feering, a village which Constable knew through his friendship with Moody’s predecessor, the Revd Walter Wren Driffield. The painting stayed at Feering until the PCC were faced with the expense of renewing the heating system.
After much heart-searching by the PCC, the painting was offered to museums in Ipswich and London. They found difficulties, however, in hanging a religious painting beside the fresh immediacy of Constable’s landscapes. Fortunately the painting failed to find a buyer at auction and the Constable Trust was formed in order to buy it and return it to the area for which it was painted.
The Trustees of The Constable Trust were honoured to be asked to lend The Ascension to the major Constable exhibition in Paris at the end of 2002, and it is now on permanent display in Dedham church as the most appropriate setting for this particular painting.