Jesus Christ’s teaching is overwhelming in its simplicity. Rather than give us burdens, He tells us to take up only one thing: our cross. Instead of demanding many sacrifices, He desires from us only one thing: our lives. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel will save it.” (Mk 8: 34-36)
Because such words are overwhelming in their directness, Jesus Christ ordained Apostles and teachers to help guide us in living this simple God-centered life; much of the Epistles in the Bible are given over to this subject. Jesus Christ did not stop appointing such people to lead us after the death of the Apostle John, and so in addition to the Holy Scriptures there are many other treatises intended to humbly guide us through the snares and pitfalls of this world and toward Salvation. One of the best known and well-loved is The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Gr: Κλίμαξ), written by St. John Climacus c.a. 600 A.D.
St John was the abbot of a monastery in Sinai, well known for his wisdom, but also a lover of solitude; it was with much insistence from his fellow-monks that he finally wrote down his pearls of wisdom in a piece which was known as “the Ladder”. There are numerous articles about this work, and how it spread throughout the Orthodox monasteries of the world, and a number of them are given in the links below.
The Icon of the Ladder developed in the wilderness regions of Egypt, from the monasteries that would have, and still do, have readings from the work all through Lent.
The ladder in the icon usually has 30 rungs, the number of Chapters in St John Climacus’ work (in later Russian icons the rungs of the ladder may be named accordingly). Upon the ladder are people at various stages of ascent. At first glance those on the ladder may seem similar, all being bearded men, but this must be seen in context. The Divine Ladder was principally a work written for monastics, and it is only relatively recently that greater numbers of non-monastics have become familiar with these writings. As such, most older icons of the Ladder reflect the principle audience of the image – monks – and so show only men, and only bearded men at that. The icon does, however, show men of differing ages, and usually includes at least one man vested as a bishop. Moreover, none of the figures are depicted with halos, even those shown reaching the top, which suggests that no specific person is being depicted, but instead a general type of person. The implicit suggestion is that all Christians who struggle toward and desire Salvation are represented on the Ladder of Divine Ascent.
The Ladder is shown cutting through the Icon, ascending from the bottom left, to the top right, and separating the Heavenly from the worldly. Around about the Ladder are numerous pitch-black demons which are besetting those on the ladders with arrows, spears, and chains. These are physical manifestations of the sinful thoughts and temptations which beset us as we walk the narrow path, or the narrow ascent, toward Salvation. Some of those beset with passions are shown falling, and those that do are swallowed up by Hades, represented as a dark head; it is also sometimes shown as a monster’s head, as in Icons of the Last Judgment.
To the left, in the upper portion, ministering angels are shown interceding for those on the Ladder, and ready to receive them (covering their hands) when they reach Heaven. In some icons they are shown swooping in to crown those who reach the summit. In the top-right is Jesus Christ Himself, open-armed, to receive all; those on the Ladder, at every stage, have their eyes fixed upon Christ. The only ones who don’t, are those who are already falling, though it is interesting to note that all – whether ascending or falling – hold their hands in the same pious, prayerful manner.
In later icons, Hades is shown in the bottom right, but in the above, older, Sinai Icon it is not clear that Hades is being shown in all its lurid detail. It is likely that those in the bottom-right are merely observing the scene, and inviting us to do the same. In some Icons the Church is explicitly shown at the bottom of the Ladder, usually with St John Climacus (shown with a halo) gesturing the way to those who have yet to begin their climb.
As ever-blooming fruits, you offer the teachings of your God-given book, O wise John, most blessed, while sweetening the hearts of all them that heed it with vigilance;
For it is a ladder from the earth unto Heaven that confers glory on the souls that ascend it and honor you faithfully.
About the Divine Ladder
Goarch resource, including a brief bio of St John
Synaxarion for the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent
“On Repentance that leads to Joy”; article on understanding St John’s work