In the early 15th century, the Florentine artist Donatello revived an ancient style of relief sculpture. Relief, a form of sculpture where figures remain attached to a solid background, had been common since the ancient world, but while the form had evolved to showcase increasing depth, where figures emerged almost entirely from their backdrop, Donatello flattened it all back out.
The Ascension with Christ giving the Keys to St Peter is one of the finest examples of the relief technique Donatello called rilievo stiacciato, literally 'squashed relief.' In the Ascension, figures emerge from their background by a hair's breadth, most sections raised by less than ten millimeters. Reminiscent of Egyptian low-relief found on objects like the Palette of Narmer, or Roman era Arretine vases, Donatello's stiacciato works are almost more like a painting than a sculpture.
Donatello's Ascension combines two biblical stories. The first is from Matthew 16:18-19, where Christ addresses his disciple Peter "And I tell you that you are Peter (from Petros, meaning rock), and on this rock I will build my church... I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven..." and the second describing Christ's ascension back to heaven in Luke 24:51, "While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven." Blending these stories was an unusual artistic choice for the era, and combined with Donatello's intensely detailed relief, creates a quietly mesmerizing scene.
We don't know the circumstances behind this commission, though it was recorded in the inventory of the Palazzo Medici in 1492, and scholars have speculated that it was created for a niche on the exterior of the trade guild's church Orsanmichele, where reliefs were often placed beneath freestanding sculptures of each guild's patron saint. For more information about Orsanmichele's sculptural legacy, check out Donatello's stalwart sculpture of St. George.