Jesus as Ladder: Jyoti Sahi and Ralph Stanley in conversation with Genesis 28

Jyoti Sahi is a prolific artist who runs 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 by Jyoti Sahi
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Lord as Ladder of Perfection, 2014. Oil on canvas.

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.

Three Resurrection paintings by Indian artist Jyoti Sahi

The chocolate bunnies and plastic grass may have moved to the out-of-sight discount racks of stores, but Easter isn’t over! Because the Resurrection is a truth that’s not easily plumbed or quickly exhausted, the liturgical calendar designates fifty days for its celebration, a season known as Eastertide. In this period we are invited to linger over the gift of Jesus’s Resurrection—to spend time admiring it and becoming familiar with it and letting its power infuse our lives. So through May 14, the content at Art & Theology will focus on this bright season.

First up: three Resurrection paintings by Dr. Jyoti Sahi, who runs an art ashram in Silvepura Village, Karnataka, in India, just outside Bangalore. Of all the painters of biblical themes active today, Sahi is definitely one of the most inventive. An artist since the late 1960s, he has been instrumental in developing a visual gospel language that’s contextualized to Indian culture and in fostering Hindu-Christian dialogue. Here are three different approaches he’s taken to depict that notoriously difficult-to-depict subject: the Resurrection of Christ.

Jesus as the Greater Jonah

This is an example of an image that rewards deep looking, being so chock-full of symbols. I encourage you, before reading on, to just gaze at the image for one full minute, and see what you see.

Resurrection by Jyoti Sahi
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Resurrection, 2007. Oil on canvas, 178 × 122 cm.

First I notice the outstretched arms of Christ—a pose that deliberately references the Crucifixion. Here, though, those extremities are not pinned down to a cross. They are utterly open and free, embracing the world in risen glory. It’s common for artists to hint at the Crucifixion in Resurrection images. There’s a theological reason for that: the Crucifixion and Resurrection are two sides of the same coin, one great unified event, neither of which can be understood in isolation from the other. Sahi strengthens this link by including a human figure on each side of Christ. In Crucifixion images, these spots are traditionally occupied by the Virgin Mary and the apostle John, but here the abstracted figures double as two of the Marys at the tomb. They look down to where they had laid the body two days ago but find only an empty stone bench. They have yet to encounter the enormous presence behind them.   Continue reading “Three Resurrection paintings by Indian artist Jyoti Sahi”