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 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).
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)
19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. 20And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it. Amen.
50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. 52And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53and were continually in the temple blessing God.
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samarʹia and to the end of the earth.” 9And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”