Here is a 12th century icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai:
It represents an allegory of the spiritual ascent of monks. The image is derived from a book written by Ioannes tes Klimakos (Ἰωάννης τῆς Κλίμακος) — John of the Ladder. He is also called Ιωάννης ο Σιναϊτης/Ioannes ho Sinaites — “John the Sinaite.” Almost nothing certain is known about him, not even his precise dates. He is said to have died in 649 at age 80. His standard life says he became the abbot of the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai. His book is called Ἡ Κλῖμαξ/He Klimax — The Ladder, also Ἡ Κλίμαξ Θείας ανόδου — The Ladder of Divine Ascent. First intended for monks as an instruction book in ascetic virtues, it eventually became a popular book of religious counsel in Eastern Orthodoxy. In Slavic it is called Лествица/Lestvitsa, and John himself is Иоанн Лествичник/Ioann Lestvichnik.
It is not hard to guess where the inspiration for this subject came from. In Genesis 28:10-12, we find the story of Jacob’s Ladder:
“And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.”
Here is a 17th century fresco of Jacob and his Ladder from the Slivnitsa Monastery in Macedonia. It includes the scene of Jacob wrestling with the angel at right:
The angels on the ladder in the biblical story are replaced in the icon of the Ladder of John Kliakos by monks climbing or falling, while the icon angels are just onlookers.
Now the Ladder as a book has 30 chapters, each corresponding to a rung on the ladder in the icon. As you see, the icon ladder has 30 rungs. So this icon depicts monks using the moral steps prescribed in the Ladder in order to ascend to heaven. Some them fail to keep those standards, and are pulled off the ladder and down by demons, shown here as winged black figures. These failed monks fall into the mouth of a dark head at the bottom, representing Hades. Those who make it all the way meet Jesus, shown at top right.
Here is the first fellow to make it to the top in the icon:
He is identified by the Greek inscription (the first two words are heavily abbreviated) above him as:
Ὁ άγιος Ιωάννης τις (της) Κλί-
Ho Hagios Ioannes tes Klimakos
“The Holy John of-the Ladder”
Next up the ladder — and just below John, is this fellow:
His inscription identifies him as:
Ὁ Άγιος Αντώνιος Αρχιεπί-
Ηο Hagios Antonios Arkhiepiskopos
“The Holy Antonios, Archbishop.”
Some scholars assume that this Archbishop Antonios was likely the abbot of the Monastery at the time when the icon was painted, following John of the Ladder both in succession and up the Ladder — but that is not certain.
A group of monks at lower right contemplate the lesson provided by the ladder. The first among them — at left — is interpreted in many examples of the type as John himself, looking toward his ladder, and often holding a scroll:
Here is an interesting later Greek example of the type:
It adds many interesting little details:
Jesus at the top end of the ladder holds a scroll:
It is Matthew 11:28:
Δεῦτε πρός με πάντες οἱ κοπιῶντες καὶ πεφορτισμένοι, κἀγὼ ἀναπαύσω ὑμᾶς.
“Come to me, all you are labor and are heaven laden, and I will give you rest.”
On the top of Mount Sinai at left, we see
Ἡ ΚΟΙΜΕCΙC ΤΗC ἉΓΙΑ ΑΙΚΑΤΕΡΙΝΗ
HE KOIMESIS TES HAGIA AIKATERINE
“The Dormition of the Holy Catherine.”
Below that is Mary shown with Christ Emmanuel in the Burning Bush, here bearing the title Ἡ ἉΓΙΑ ΒΑΤΟC — HE HAGIA BATOS — “The Holy Bush.”
Just below the Burning Bush is a kneeling figure identified by inscription as:
Ὁ ΠΡΟΦΗΤΗΣ ΜΟΗCΗC — HO PROPHETES MOISES — “The Prophet Moses.”
This scene of Mary within the Burning Bush and Moses kneeling before it is an icon type in itself; it is the usual Greek way of depicting the Burning Bush as a prefiguration of Mary’s bearing of Jesus; just as the Old Testament bush burned but was not consumed, so Mary is considered in Eastern Orthodoxy to have been filled with the fire of divinity, but not consumed thereby. In Greek this type may be titled Ἡ φλεγόμενη και μη κατακαιόμενη βάτος — He Phlegomene kai Me Katakaiomene Batos — “The Burning and Not Consumed Bush,” or it may be called simply — as here — Ἡ Ἡαγια βατος — He Hagia Batos — “The Holy Bush.” Russians preferred a different image to show this — the often complex icon type called Неопалимая Купина — Neopalimaya Kupina — the “Unburnt Thornbush.”
Below that we find this scene of a hooded angel talking to a man:
Now if you have been a careful reader of this blog over time, you will recognize this scene as a specific icon type, and even be able to easily read the inscription. It is the image of the hooded angel and the monk Pakhomios, and you will find it described here:
The inscription is the words of the angel to Pakhomios, and it reads:
ΕΝ ΤΟΥΤΟ ΤѠ CΧΗΜΑΤΙ CѠΘΗCΕΤΑΙ ΠΑCΑ CΑΡΞ Ѡ ΠΑΧΟΜΙΕ
EN TOUTO TO SKHIMATI SOTHESETAI PASA SARX O PAKHOMIE
In this the skhima shall-be-saved all flesh O Pakhomios
Or in more normal English,
“In this skhima shall all flesh be saved, O Pakhomios.” The skhima, you will recall is the habit/garment of an Eastern Orthodox monk.
So that scene is the icon type called “The Vision of Pakhomios.”
In the lower right corner of the icon we see a demon pitchforking one of the fallen monks into Hades at left, and to the right of that stands John of the Ladder himself, gesturing toward the ladder and holding a scroll in his hand that reads:
Αναβαίνετε, αναβαίνετε, αδελφοί
Anabainete, anabainete, adelphoi
“Climb, climb brothers.”
For simplicity, we may call icons of this type “The Ladder of John Klimakos.” Russian examples generally call it (with some variation) Видение преподобного Иоанна Лествичника — Videnie prepodobnogo Ioanna Lestvichnika — “The Vision of Venerable John of the Ladder.” Russian examples vary in detail and complexity, but we shall examine those another day.