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The last wonderful thing: the icon of the Heavenly Ladder on Mount Sinai
By Elena Ene D-Vasilescu
Wonderful Things: Byzantium through its Art: Papers from the 42nd Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, London, 20-22 March 2009, edited by Liz James and Antony Eastmond (Ashgate, 2013)
Introduction: Jacob ‘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. (Genesis 28:)
This is what is happening in this icon of The Heavenly or Celestial Ladder, the last ‘wonderful thing’ which a visitor to the ‘Byzantium’ exhibition at the Royal Academy saw before leaving the place. Except that on the Sinai ladder there are not only angels depicted, but also their ‘counters’ – the devil figures. In the icon from Sinai a ladder with 30 rungs crosses the composition diagonally and unites earth with heaven. On a golden and luminous background the dark silhouettes of the monks caught in their struggle, helped by the chants of two choirs, capture the viewer’s eye. The mouth of Hell is at the bottom of the ladder and one of the monks is already half inside it. Other monks at the bottom right are attending the scene and are raising their arms in prayer. Some angels at the upper left are also part of the narrative, as they have a vital role to play in people’s ascension to Heaven.
As shown by Robin Cormack and Maria Vassilaki in the catalogue of the exhibition, “Their haloes resemble spinning wheels, as they are polished to reflect light. This technique of burnishing is a characteristic of several icons produced at Sinai.” The authors continue, emphasizing further the similarity between the icon under discussion and another particular icon, also from St Catherine: “The back of the icon shows crosses within medallions, a decoration found in other twelfth-century icons from Sinai, with which this icon has been connected in style, such as the icon of the Annunciation”. In addition to this example, the icon of the Crucifixion and the icon with the Miracle at Chonai, both from the Monastery of St Catherine, can be used to illustrate the similarity of the technique of burnishing, and of the icons themselves.