The Ladder of Divine Ascent Icon: Iconography and Meaning

A Short Guide to Famous Religious Icons

Some icons are pretty rare, which makes them especially important for both Orthodox Christian believers and collectors of religious art. One of such exquisite holy icons is The Ladder of Divine Ascent icon. Its origin is inextricably linked to the life of John of The Ladder.

In the middle of the 6th century, a 16-year-old boy named John came to the Sinai Monastery (now – the Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt). After deciding to devote himself to the service of the Lord, he became a novice and took monastic vows four years later. Led by spiritual pursuits, after almost two decades, John retired to a desert place where he spent forty years as a hermit, praying and writing books. Being already an old man, he was found by the monks of the Sinai monastery. They persuaded John to return to the monastery as father superior. For four years, John headed the monastery. At the time, he wrote a spiritual work that he called “The Ladder of Divine Ascent.” This treatise represented the result of his monastic path, written in a simple and understandable language, which would later become one of the essential books for monks. Icon studies showed that, as time passed, the monks who copied “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” started adding some illustrations to it. These pictures then became the basis for a unique sacred painting – The Ladder of Divine Ascent icon.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent Icon: Description and Meaning

There are several variants of this divine artwork, the most famous of which is kept in the Saint Catherine’s Monastery. It depicts a big ladder leading to Jesus Christ in Paradise, on which monks are climbing, obsessed by demons. It is an excellent allegorical depiction of the struggle of the human will with the obsessions on the way to virtue. The steps of the ladder symbolize that spiritual perfection that is achieved not immediately but gradually, step by step.

The last steps are especially important. After defeating temptations, it is time to master the virtues, three of which are the most vital – faith, hope, and love. Without them, no one can enter the Kingdom of God. The number of stairs, which is 30, is also no coincidence as it refers to the thirty years of self-improvement of the Savior, preceding the beginning of His service to humanity. On this rare Orthodox icon, we see the trials awaiting people at every step of the way. Someone falls down the stairs at the beginning, someone loses the moral path in the middle, and someone gives up almost at the top. It is noteworthy that the angels are depicted aside, frozen in prayer, without interfering with the course of events. Thus, the iconographer implies that the fight against demons (passions, temptations) is solely in your hands. At the very top of the ladder, there is John himself, holding out a scroll with his treatise to the Messiah.

There are also several other variations of The Ladder of Divine Ascent icon. Old Russian icons, for example, have more details and include the depiction of Heaven full of saints and faithful people.

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