Ascension of Christ, from the series 'Scenes from the Life of Christ', the Hohenfurth Monastery by Master of the Vyšší Brod Altar

Master of the Vyšší Brod Altar

Ascension of Christ, from the series 'Scenes from the Life of Christ', the Hohenfurth monastery, c.1350, Tempera on wood, 99 x 92.5 cm, Národní galerie Praha, NG O 6793, akg-images / André Held

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Feet Last

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The general features of the icon tradition of the Ascension remain recognizable in this late medieval Western picture. It is a representation of Mary and the apostles; Jesus is in the process of vanishing into the cloud (cf. Acts 1:9). All we can see are his feet, sticking out. (In some other works, only the soles of his feet are visible.)

For late medieval pilgrims to Jerusalem, the mark of the soles of Christ’s feet on the summit of the Mount of Olives was a place of pilgrimage: it was, for example, this especially that St Ignatius of Loyola wanted to see on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1523 (Munitiz & Endean 1996: 35).

In contrast to the message of the Eastern icons, these Western accounts of the Ascension are rather about the absence of Christ, and, as Herbert Kessler and Robert Deshman have argued, about the event being ‘unwitnessed’ and therefore not fully representable (Kessler 2000: 132; Deshman 1997). Christ is no longer here on earth. As the angels said to the disciples:

Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus who has been received up from you into heaven shall so come in like manner that you have seen him go into heaven. (Acts 1:11)

Compared with the icon elsewhere in this exhibition, this picture is about the earth Jesus has left; heaven is not part of the picture. In such a this-worldly account historical verisimilitude holds sway: there are twelve apostles, with no trace of the ahistorical Paul of the icon. We can also find this sense of the Ascension in Western liturgies—witness the collect in the Roman Missal: ut, qui hodierna die Unigenitum tuum, Redemptorem nostrum, ad caelos ascendisse credimus; ipsi quoque mente in caelestibus habitemus, which Cranmer rendered: ‘that like as we do believe thy only-Begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell…’ (Book of Common Prayer).

 

References

Deshman, Robert. 1997. ‘Another Look at the Disappearing Christ: Corporeal and Spiritual Vision in Early Medieval Images’, The Art Bulletin, 79.3, pp. 518–46

Kessler, Herbert. 2000. Spiritual Seeing: Picturing God's Invisibility in Medieval Art (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press)

Munitiz, Joseph and Philip Endean. 1996. Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Personal Writings (London: Penguin Books)

 


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