The

Temple Gallery

Established 1959

Ladder of Saint John Climacus - exhibited at the Temple Gallery, specialists in Russian icons

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ZZ002. Ladder of St John Climacus

Russian, Old Believers Workshop
Circa 1800
44.2 x 36.5 cmClick here to convert metric size to imperial

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Saint John Climacus (Ἰωάννης τῆς Κλίμακος c. 7th Century CE), also known as John of the Ladder, John Scholasticus and John Sinaites, was a 7th century Christian monk at the monastery on Mount Sinai. Of John's literary output we know only the Κλίμαξ (Latin: Scala Paradisi) or Ladder of Divine Ascent, composed at the request of John, Abbot of Raithu, a monastery situated on the shores of the Red Sea, and a shorter work To the Pastor (Latin: Liber ad Pastorem), most likely a sort of appendix to the Ladder. The Ladder describes how to raise one's soul and body to God through the acquisition of ascetic virtues. Climacus uses the analogy of Jacob's Ladder as the framework for his spiritual teaching. Each chapter is referred to as a "step", and deals with a separate spiritual subject. The work was originally written for the monks of a neighbouring monastery, the Ladder swiftly became, and still is, one of the most widely read and much-beloved books of Byzantine spirituality. (Based on the article in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Climacus.)

Our icon follows the imagery established since the 12th century in the famous icon at Saint Catherine’s monastery, Sinai (fig. a). It depicts a ladder extending from earth to heaven (cf. Genesis 28:12). Several monks are depicted climbing a ladder; at the top is Christ, prepared to receive them into Heaven. Also shown are angels helping the climbers, and demons attempting to drag the climbers down. Most versions of the icon show at least one person falling. Often, in the lower part Saint John Climacus himself is shown, gesturing towards the ladder, with rows of monastics behind him.

Fig. a. Icon of The Heavenly Ladder, St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

We cannot say whether our painter actually saw this icon in Sinai but he would have been familiar with later Russian versions of it. One of these is a manuscript illustration (fig. b) preserved in the State History Museum in Moscow (inventory No. E. p. arch 454. See Weiher et al. 1000 Jahre Russische Kunst zur erinnerung an dir taufe der Rus im jahr 988; Weisbden 1988-1989, p. 279).

Fig. b No. ZZ002