Jyoti Sahi is a prolific artist who founded an art ashram in Silvepura Village outside Bangalore in southern India. His paintings are infused with Christian spirituality, often depicting biblical narratives set on Indian soil.
Lord as Ladder of Perfection references Jacob’s dream from Genesis 28:10–22, wherein Jacob witnesses angels descending and ascending a cosmic ladder. This vision resurfaces in the New Testament, when heaven opens and angels are seen pressing in on the Son of Man (John 1:51), ministering to him in his passion and then heralding his resurrection.
By entwining Jesus in this ladder from Genesis, Sahi suggests that Jesus himself is our ladder—the One who connects earth to heaven, heaven to earth. By him, we can access God.
We are meant to identify with the figure in the bottom left corner of the painting, whose gender is deliberately ambiguous. In this figure you might see Jacob, or, as one friend pointed out to me, perhaps you see Mary Magdalene, who is often shown in art weeping at the foot of the cross and is traditionally understood to be the “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume and tears in Luke 7:37–38. Either way, we are invited into the painting by this bent body, invited to worship Christ.
(Related post: “Three Resurrection paintings by Indian artist Jyoti Sahi”)
The cosmic implications of Jesus’s mediating role are suggested in a few ways. First, Jesus’s left leg is lifted in the pose of Nataraja (“Lord of the Dance”), an embodiment of the Hindu god Shiva. Nataraja’s dance destroys all obstacles on the path to liberation and prepares the universe for renewal, and here Jesus is grafted into that iconography. He dances, and the world is transformed.
Moreover, the four elements are present: earth, wind, fire, water. Earth forms the base of the painting, where the ladder, treelike, is rooted. Wind sweeps down in the form of a hamsa, a mythical swan-like bird, here signifying the Holy Spirit. Fire burns at the bottom right, a biblical symbol for cleansing and refining, and appears to be setting aflame a bush, a reminder for us to be attentive to God’s call, as Moses was. Straight down the center, water bursts forth from Christ’s side wound, a river of life that washes over the worshipper.
At the top, the ladder branches out and flowers.
Painted in 2014, Lord as Ladder of Perfection reminds me of the traditional hymn “Jacob’s Vision,” which likewise identifies the ladder of Jacob’s dream with the crucified Christ. I wrote about the hymn here—in particular, the beautiful cello-accompanied rendition sung by Ralph Stanley, who passed away on Thursday. I enjoy listening to it while I gaze at Sahi’s painting, as the two interpret each other.
One thought on “Jesus as Ladder: Jyoti Sahi and Ralph Stanley in conversation with Genesis 28”
Theologically speaking, the ladder is a very complicated image. On the one hand, it tends to be tied to Neoplatonic ideas about climbing out of the physical world towards the eternal. Physical things are okay, but are thought of sort of like a ladder that can be kicked away once one has reached the higher realms. Since Christ is not only the means to God, but also the one with whom we are united, the ladder-image is probably one with which we should be careful. However, on the other hand, these sorts of Neoplatonic ideas have been adopted by Christianity. I can’t think of any references to Christ as ladder specifically, though I think it’s implied/assumed in thinkers like Augustine and Pseudo Dionysius. The difference though, is that Christ is a ladder that both goes up to God and kenotically descends and enables his followers to do the same (which is of course congruent with Jacob’s dream of the angels travelling up and down the ladder)!