By Deena Sherman
“And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven, and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12–13).
Dreams and sleep are inexorably linked – and the bible provides us with some of the most famous dreams that have ever been recorded.
Jacob, also known as Israel, was the son of Isaac and Rebecca. He fathered twelve sons who each became a leader of the twelve tribes of Israel. On a long journey to a town called Haran, Jacob stopped for the night. He found a rock to use as a pillow, and fell asleep. He dreamt of a ladder going up to heaven with angels ascending and descending it. At the top of the ladder was God who told Jacob that he would bless him wherever he went.
The artist of Jacob’s Ladder is unknown. What is known is that it was painted in approximately the year 1400 in the Southern French town of Avignon. In this painting, Jacob lies
stiffly in the foreground with his head on a rock. One hand supports his head while another holds tightly onto his staff in a rather unrelaxed and certainly most unusual sleeping posture. The darkness of the surrounding rock face makes Jacob’s figure stand out, and this luminosity is complemented by the other bright area of the painting: the angels, God and the clouds.
Avignon became a center for the arts in the 1309 when the Pope Clement V moved there because of hostility, sometimes described as anarchy that was then present in Rome. Artists became attracted to area because of the possibility of patronage of the popes. After the popes left, Avignon continued to attract artists and soon became the center of a school of painting known as “The School of Avignon”. Many Italian artists worked in this location and through them Italian art was introduced into France. The School of Avignon is particularly associated with late Gothic art.
The astonishing use of light and the gentle folds in Jacob’s robes are just two aspects of the painting that make Jacob’s Ladder the much appreciated artwork it is. In a sense, this technique predated its use by later Italian artists during the next century.
How to Recognize Gothic Art by Maria Christina Gozzoli, 1978
The Oxford Dictionary of Art 2004
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition;2006
A New Dictionary of Eponyms; 1997; Morton S. Freeman