In a previous posting I discussed Greek icons of the “Ladder of John Klimakos,” and said I would talk about Russian examples of the type another day. Well, a reader asked me about a particular Russian example of that type, so the day is here.
In Russian iconography, the “Ladder” type is called Видение преподобного Иоанна Лествичника — Videnie prepodobnogo Ioanna Lestvichnika — “The Vision of Venerable John of the Ladder.”
Here is a 15th century Novgorod example:
In the center we see the main image of the ladder to heaven, found also in Greek examples. The monks attempt the climb by perfecting their virtues, but not all can live up to the high standard encouraged by the angels at left (who hold crowns for those who are successful) — and fall among demons into Hades. One monk has made it to the top, where he is greeted at the door of Paradise by Jesus, by Mary as Mother of God, by John the Forerunner (the Baptist) and angels. And as a sign of his completed climb, we see he has a halo, unlike those still attempting the ascent below him. To the left of the doors we see a crowd of righteous people of several kinds, with King David standing at their head, crowned and holding his psaltery.
On the left side of the icon is an old Russian-style church, and below it Ioann Lestvichnik — John of the Ladder — preaches from the pulpit to assembled monks. He holds aloft a scroll which often begins:
Всходите, всходите всходы с усердием на сердци, братие…
Vskhodite, vskhodite vskhodui s userdiem na serdtsi, bratie…
“Ascend, ascend, climbers, with zeal in your hearts, brothers…”
At lower right we see the abyss of Hades, shown as a cave in which two royal figures — a male and a female — sit at a golden table. They are the pre-Christian classical deities Pluto (Hades), ruler of the Underworld, and his kidnapped queen Proserpina (Persephone), from the old Greek myth that explains the seasons. But because Christianity replaced the old deities, the royal pair are not considered as deities in the icon, but rather as demons, which was a propagandistic method used very early in the history of Christianity (“Your gods are demons, but our God is real”). These deities from Greek and Roman mythology are often omitted, and simply the abyss of Hades is shown, with demons, or with the unfortunate falling into the mouth of Hades depicted as the open maw of a monster.