Antonio Bellucci received his earliest artistic training in Sibenik, Dalmatia (presently part of Croatia but formerly a Venetian colony) before travelling to Venice circa 1675. His earliest known canvases demonstrate the influences of Pietro Liberi, Andrea Celesti and Antonio Zanchi, though his palette gradually lightened in response to works by Veronese. In 1692, Bellucci was commissioned to paint a series of four altarpiece scenes from the lives of patron saints for the church of Klosterneuburg, just north of Vienna. Bellucci remained in Austria until 1700, spent the following two years back in Venice, and then was called back to Vienna to complete a decorative cycle for the ceilings of the Palais Liechtenstein. 1704 saw the artist again in Venice, while in 1705 he travelled to Düsseldorf in the service of John William, the Elector of the Palatinate, executing numerous commissions (many for the Elector's country estate, Schloss Bensberg). When John William died in 1716, Bellucci left for England, where his decorative, proto-Rococo style was well received. Bellucci remained in England for six years, primarily in the employ of James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos, at his house Cannons in Middlesex. It was for the Duke that the present bozzetto, and ultimately the completed ceiling decoration, was executed.
This painting is an original sketch for what is now the central nave ceiling decoration of Great Witley Church in Worcestershire (figs. 1 and 2). The larger, finished composition was first installed in the ceiling of the chapel at Cannons, but was ultimately transferred to Great Witley in 1747. Cannons chapel was inaugurated in August of 1720 shortly following James Brydges' investiture as first Duke of Chandos in 1719, and the painting was likely commissioned at that time. The style is close to examples by Bellucci in the Kunstmuseum in Düsseldorf, and it is worthwhile to compare the artist's original conception of the Ascension with the completed decorative scheme.
Differences between this modello and the completed view exist primarily in the upper part of the composition. In the sketch, Christ appears to be ascending more rapidly, head flung back, drawn bodily upward by a divine force. The Witley ceiling decoration is magnificent yet in a way less thrilling for all its dignified grandeur: Christ sits regally enthroned on a cloud, raised heavenward in a glorious and majestic manner, but without the sense of urgency and rapidity conveyed in the modello. He is also surrounded by fewer frantic, swirling figures, arms outstretched as though they have been thrown backward and blinded by the light. In the completed version the angels recline more calmly, reaching toward Christ rather than flinging out their arms in shock and awe.