Ladder of Divine Ascent icon

What’s Going on in the Ladder of Divine Ascent Icon?

If you have even seen the Ladder of Divine Ascent icon, the chances are that you could have some doubts about what is going on in that sacred image. One of the oldest Byzantine icons of today, it represents the teachings of Saint John Climacus, a seventh-century monk who once resided at St. Catherine’s monastery. At first glance, the setting of the holy image seems self-explanatory, but when you start looking closer, more and more searching questions start popping up in your head. Let’s try to decipher the antique icon and shed more light on what is depicted in it.

A brief note on the history of the icon

The Ladder of Divine Ascent icon was painted circa 1150. Given the fact that it was created during the reign of the Byzantine Empire, expert suggests that its style resembles Middle Byzantine and Komnenian styles that were especially popular back then. As for the name of the sacred painting, it repeats the title of the classic spiritual book by very same Saint John Climacus. More than that, the icon was found at the monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt, where the monk lived.

Setting analysis of the Ladder of Divine Ascent icon

As the Ladder of Divine Ascent icon was inspired by the book, Saint John left all the clues there. What you see is the process of ascension of monks from earth to Heaven. The ladder symbolizes spiritual development in life. You can see 30 rungs that directly represent 30 stages of monks’ ascetic existence. At the top of the ladder, Jesus Christ welcomes and blesses monks who managed to reach the top of the ladder.

The ladder visually divides the icon into two parts. At the top left corner, there are angels embodying positive virtues such as kindness, temperance, fortitude, gratitude, humility, etc. Their position signifies the strong opposition to the bottom right corner, where the icon painter depicts the maw as the representation of Hell. The middle part of the Ladder of Divine Ascent icon is where all the action takes place. Step by step, monks climb the ladder to reach the heights of spiritual life. Meanwhile, black demons attack them and pull them down, which epitomizes the sinful acts committed by the monks. Those who have no faith and willpower to resist go to the abyss.

All in all, the icon is an object lesson of what it means to grow spiritually. In some sense, it is an instruction on how to overcome vices and develop virtues in life.