Jacob’s Ladder: William Blake’s Watercolor Ode to the Divine Imagination
William Blake’s 1805 rendition of Jacob’s Ladder, or Jacob's Dream, pen and grey ink and watercolor on paper, is both sublime and provocative. It is immediately distinguishable and carries within it the very mystery of the divine. Blake was impressed and satisfied with the work. This is not an easy achievement by any stretch of the imagination as artists usually are wounded by the barrage of self-critique and, even at times, abuse by their conscience and sense of perfectionism. Notwithstanding, the work brings the viewer into biblical and metaphysical realms. In the book of Genesis, specifically, chapter 28:10–19, the dreamlike narrative of the mystical experience Jacob had encountering God is vividly illustrated.
The ladder has several key interpretations. For Blake, who was influenced by Emmanuel Swedenborg, Spiritualists, and other mystical Christian writers, the varied views were stimulating. The provided the range of inspiration and the deep muses for the work to become one of the quintessential pieces of mystical religious art.
The unique characteristics of the piece include the variation on the theme of the ladder. Blake chooses a staircase extending out from the Sun to touch the earth's surface adjacent to the crown of Jacob’s head. Where the ladder has a more Judaic symbolism, stairs reveal Blake’s broader spiritual references. There are not only angels ascending and descending. Humans are also partaking in this celestial showcase. I have always been intrigued by the possible connections between Blake’s theology and that of Philo. Philo believed in the transmigration of souls. It is easy to deduce the Blake felt the same by noticing how the human souls ascend and descend the steps of the heavenly spiral staircase.
As the humans descend, they carry with them instruments of art and labor. One woman carries a vase and purse, as in detailing a life to come in the service of others. One is reminded of the Buddhist concept of the bodhisattva, a saint who, rather than enjoy the eternal peace of the Tushita heaven, chooses to return to show others the way to enlightenment. Another lady descending the stairs reads from a long scroll (perhaps the book of life) held by another ascending woman. The lady reaching the earth has determination written across her countenance, and she takes within her left hand, a large compass, and in her right hand what appears to be shoes. These images invoke thoughts of the divine work of surveying the word as God asked of prophets in Scripture, such as Isaiah. Later, Christian mystics such as Cosmas Indicopleustes, an Egyptian monk, would also use this symbol to express the divine purposes of Creation and of achieving intimacy with God.
I see Jacob lying on the ground, and his arms outstretched. At a closer view, the ground seems ornate with topography, and colors selected by Blake make the schema seem close to the Earth – being viewed from space. As Jacob stretches across the ground, his arms outstretched in a cruciform manner, the sensibility that the unfathomable length, width, and expanse of the staircase, which guarantees the unceasing connection from heaven to earth (as above so below), this is also the role Jacob is to play, and that of all the stars which are analogous to the innumerable sons and daughters promised to Jacob and Abraham.
At the base of the stairs from earth ascending, it is no coincidence that an angel is carrying a basket of bread and behind her, the woman carrying the vase and purse. As Jacob’s sleep occurred on what many scholars argue to be Mount Moriah, this would later be called Calvary. Another would have his arms set in excruciating cruciform fashion, promising the ladder to heaven for all humanity. Jesus’ death is dramatically expressed in the Eucharist, in the bread and wine, of Christian liturgy, a mystical religious experience quite familiar to Blake in which art imitated life – in the most brutal, hopeful, divine, and human manner ever contemplated by the human eye.
I recall as a young seminary student perusing through Blake’s poetry and noticing a theological commentary of significant importance which remains with me to this day – Jesus was the bridge, according to Blake, between the heavens and the earth. This painting illustrates the same. At the highest echelons, the staircase becomes one with the Sun – the Egyptian depiction of God, or Ra. And at the foot of the stairs, bread and wine is provided - “Do this for the remembrance of Me.”
In Blake’s painting, there is a mother with her child ascending the stairs. Her daughter is looking ahead, intent, and innocent. Her mother is surveying the vastness of the heavens, and it seems there is a sense of awe and surrender in her face. They are home. Immediately in from of them, a mother is carrying her baby. Not even death can separate what was once one.
The painting highlights the reunions with loved ones, so many adherents of different religious traditions look forward to it. It is for untold numbers the only shred of solace for so many presently laying on hospice beds, walking out of oncology offices, and viewing their entire lives before them at this very moment. “I will see you again.” Blake looked forward to this personal experience with his spouse.
One true marvel of the painting is the color. As the viewer takes her eye from the bottom of the work to the very top of the canvas, the illustrated beings are beautifully singular. One notices their faces, emotions and follows their gaze. Backgrounds of midnight blue intersect greens and browns. As blue hues serve as shadows for the persons ascending and descending, those in the work's midsection are noticeably silhouettes of light. Still defined, but now beings significantly distant from the earth and always ascending to the source of all light. As they reach the acme, they become one with the golden light of the Sun. As Blake depicts the light emanating from the Sun, they are waves moving away from the Sun and covering all the light surveys. In turn, the angels and humans are swept by the light, and only occasional reliefs outline who they once were in souls veiled in matter as they are now spirits free in the perpetual light.
There are endless possibilities for Blake. As many as the mysteries of the divine. Art, for Blake, was indelibly the sacred vehicle through which we access the divine imagination. Through reliefs, watercolor, or poetry, these mediums help us to encounter God within us. It is an art that reveals metaphysical purposes. Through art, we can find meaning to life’s pain, mysteries, uncertainties, and injustices. The name given to Jacob was Israel. God names him so because it was his unwillingness to let go while he wrestled with God. We encounter God and discover our divinity. Art is for each of us our ladder to and from heaven.