The mural over the High Altar was painted in April and May of 1956 by Jan H. de Rosen, and was the anonymous gift of a member of the parish. The High Altar was rebuilt and the chancel, or sanctuary, extended at the same time. The Altar was consecrated and the mural dedicated by the Bishop of Washington on October 28, 1956.
The mural proclaims the Ascension of our Lord and his second Advent, in power and great glory in the midst of his Saints. It takes in shape and size from the pointed gothic window enclosed behind it, and it is about fourteen feet wide and twenty feet high. The two arches of the chancel, progressively larger but of the same shape, serve as frames to the painting.
The mural is executed directly on plaster in durable wax tempera (a mixture of pigment and beeswax liquefied by alcohol), with silver leaf and three shades of gold leaf.
The general conception of the Saints standing in line below our Lord’s figure within a pointed oval (visica) was inspired by the medieval form of the monstrance in which the Host (consecrated Bread) is displayed.
The Ascending Christ
The figure of our Lord is dominant as one enters the church. Its flame-colored background stands out brilliantly against the deep blue sky tinted with green and broken by clouds of silver leaf. Our Lord’s garment of dazzling white (similar to the alb worn by a priest at Mass) is described by St. John in his Revelation. Christ is shown ascended in glory, his arms outstretched in the form of a cross as if to show the price of his victory; and the palms of his hands bear crosses where they were pierced by the nails.
In distinction from his crucified figure, his head inclines toward his left side–toward his heart, indicating, as it were, his compassion. His strong face, beardless because after his Resurrection he is ageless, displays the calmness and majesty of his eternal Godhead and yet, looking down on his people he is one with us in his Humanity. The nimbus behind his head is gold with a cross in deep blue. As the seraphim are nearest the throne of God, so their flame-colored wings surround his body and seemingly carry him to Heaven.
The Seven Saints
Directly below our Lord stands his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is the queen of Saints and therefore occupies the central place of honor among the seven Saints of the mural. Her title—Mother of God, Theotokos, or God-bearer—is indicated by the Greek letters within her halo. Her garments are salmon and pale blue, with small gold crosses on them after the Eastern custom. Her face is youthful as at the time of the Annunciation. Her eyes are closed as if the mystery of it were too great even for her to look upon. Her hands are upraised in the manner of the orantes figures of the catacombs, showing that she prays for us to her Divine Son.
St. Athanasius and St. Alban, flanking her to left and right, represent age and youth, contemplation and action, and the Eastern and Western churches.
Athanasius is vested in a purplish brown chasuble of Eastern shape with a pallium with red crosses. His bearded, perhaps defiant, face and the Book of Gospels which he holds indicate his long life of defending the Christian faith in the Incarnation against the heresy of Arius. Each of the Saints, except our Lady, is given a symbol on the gold ground below their feet, and the open book below Athanasius bears a text in Greek from his work On the Incarnation: “For the Son of God became man that we might become divine.” Athanasius died in the year 373.
St. Alban was a Roman soldier martyred during the Diocletian persecution about the hear 303 near the spot where stands the English city named for him. His armor is silver and the red kerchief about his neck is like that worn by minor officers of the Roman Army. The shield leaning against his left leg is painted vermilion. He bears upright in both hands the symbol of his martyrdom, a sword, so that it forms his other symbol, a cross. The spring of water below his feet recalls the legend that, on his way to martyrdom, a spring of water gushed forth to quench his thirst.
St. Agnes and St. Margaret of Scotland, next on the left and right, again contrast youth with age, and also a life of consecrated virginity with the sanctity of family and home life.
Agnes was a daughter of a Roman patrician family and is dressed in rich garments: her hair caught up in a golden net and the border of her garment ornamented with an early Coptic design in yellow and red. Agnes’s fortitude at the age of thirteen, in the same persecution and time as Alban, led to her being universally hailed, and she is the patroness of one of the two parishes which merged in 1948 to form the present church of the Ascension and St. Agnes. Her symbol, the lamb, was inspired at a very larly date by the similarity of her name to Agnus Dei, and reminds us of her unblemished life in union with the sacrifice of the Lamb of God.
St. Margaret was also of noble family, the granddaughter of King Edmund Ironside of England, and the wife of King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland; and she was a matron full of years and good works. She exerted great influence as Queen, founding religious houses and promoting justice in what was still largely an uncivilized country. Her kindness to the poor is especially remembered. Her simple gold coronet and plain green kirtle reflect the relative poverty of the Scottish court. In her hands she bears a jeweled cross containing the Block Rood of Scotland–a relic of the True Cross which she held before her eyes as she was dying (November 16, 1093). The royal lion of Scotland is painted on the shield at her feet, though its heraldic use in her time cannot be certainly known.
St. Thomas of Canterbury is last on the left, and while he was both a Bishop and Martyr, we think of him chiefly as representing the Church in England, as Margart does the Church in Scotland, and as Alban does as the flower of martyrdom in ancient Britain. Thomas wears full pontificals: a deep red chasuble over dalmatic and tunicle, in token of the fullness of episcopal office; around his shoulder his archbishop’s pallium of wool; and on his head a mitre in the low form of the twelfth century. He bears in his gloved hands one of the swords with which he was slain before an altar of his cathedral on December 29, 1170. His slightly grisled beard is an authentic touch from a mosaic made shortly after his death. The arms of Canterbury are at his feed: a pallium and archbishop’s cross on a blue field.
Finally, on the right, stands the youthful St. Vincent, Deacon and Martyr at Valencia in Spain, bearing witness in the same persecution and time as Alban and Agnes. His dalmatic of linen with purple stripes or clavi is copied from one found in a fourth-century tomb. The silver censer which he holds by its short chain is copied from a seventh-century Coptic censer, and reminds us that he served at the altar and therefore is a patron of our acolytes. The gridiron on which he was burned and the raven said to have guarded his dead body are his chief symbols. The one is painted the one at his feet; the other, perched on his right hand.
The mural, representing our Lord’s Ascension looks forward also to his second coming:
Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,
Once for our salvation slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of his train:
Christ the Lord returns to reign.