Genesis 28:10–22

Jacob’s Ladder

Commentaries by Anna Freeman Bentley

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William Blake

Jacob's Ladder, c.1799–1806, Pen and grey ink and watercolour on paper, 398 x 306 mm, The British Museum, London; 1949,1112.2, © The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY

Infinite Curls

Commentary by Anna Freeman Bentley

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Read by Ben Quash

William Blake’s use of ink and watercolour in this painting from 1800 creates a dream-like effect, as the watery materials evoke the fluidity of Jacob’s sleeping vision. We are presented with a tonal gradient: colour-contrast decreases, along with detail, as we look from bottom to top. In the lower half of the watercolour, the star-filled sky is dark but as our eyes ascend upwards, light fills the space, illuminating an awe-inspiring scene of wonder.

Jacob lies at the bottom in an awkward sleeping pose; indeed, one can imagine that getting comfortable would have been difficult in the wilderness with nothing but a stone for a pillow. Nonetheless Jacob is rendered in a deep and peaceful state of slumber. The vision of the spiral staircase appears from behind him, growing out of the stone on which he lays his head. Blake signals a spiritual encounter by his positioning of Jacob’s right foot, which protrudes into the dark, starry space beyond the edge of the earth on which he is lying. The composition leaves the viewer asking, where does the finite end and infinity begin?

The progressive recession of the spiral staircase suggests a vast distance. It seems that the stairs curl away into the sun and beyond to eternity. The lack of any structural integrity to the staircase asserts its unreality, allowing the spiral shape simply to evoke the power and energy of God’s promise (Cook 1914: 407).

The looseness of the drawing’s pencil lines emphasizes the immediacy of the work. The angels (some with and some without wings) descend and ascend the stairway, wafting and curving their bodies in ways that mirror the curling stairs. The ethereal quality of Blake’s painting means that just as this vision appeared out of nowhere, we can easily imagine it disappearing again, leaving us, along with Jacob, dumbfounded, ready to proclaim the ground that he is sleeping on as a sacred space: ‘How awesome is this place!’ (Genesis 28:17).



Cook, Theodore Andrea. 1914. The Curves of Life (London: Constable and Company)

Lister, Raymond. 1988. The Paintings of William Blake. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Wingfield Digby, George. 1957. Symbol and Image in William Blake (Oxford: Clarendon Press)

Anna Freeman Bentley

Descent, 2011, Oil on 8 panels supported by scaffolding, 1100 x 182 cm (base) tapering to 91.5cm (top), Collection of the artist; Photo credit: Rowan Durrant

Stairway from Heaven

Commentary by Anna Freeman Bentley

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This eleven-metre-high, eight-panel painting of a spiral staircase exemplifies how my artistic practice works with cropped and manipulated images of architectural interiors to explore ideas of longing in society.

Harnessing the enigmatic quality of paint, I confront the viewer with a towering staircase that exudes its own visual rhythm as it curls upon itself. Observed up close, the panels reveal an intuitive process where expressive brush marks of thinly applied paint suggest immediacy and exuberance. The sides of the panels reveal vertical drips, signalling a horizontally-executed process, and the back exposes a scaffold support, shifting the painting towards sculpture.

The scale of the work, and its site-specific engagement with church surroundings, contextualizes it with the biblical story of Jacob’s ladder, despite there being no depiction of Jacob asleep at the foot of the stair or any rendering of angels ascending and descending.

The source material for this painting was the studio of French artist Gustav Moreau (1826–98). His symbolist paintings of biblical and mythological figures are hard to decipher in Descent, yet my reproductions of them line the walls around the painted staircase, mirroring Jacob’s dreamlike vision. A doubling is played out in the multiple curls of the stairs, recalling the baroque fascination of ‘tending toward infinity’ (Wolfflin 1986: 71). The painting tapers to a narrow top, where we glimpse an opening above. French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925–95) speaks of the world of human experience in terms of interconnected levels, or as Anthony Vidler describes it: ‘two stories, the one material, the other spiritual, joined by a stair of infinite folds’ (2001: 233). From one perspective, the painting reaches up to touch the untouchable; stretching from earth to heaven.

Concurrently, however, Descent questions whether the central image of Genesis 28:10–22 is best conceived as a ‘stairway to heaven’. The ‘ladder’ is let down into Jacob’s physical and moral wilderness. Rather than depending on the shaky foundations of Jacob's past actions and current circumstances, affirmation and encouragement are anchored in ‘the Lord [who] stood above it’ (Genesis 28:13).

This is a stairway from Heaven.



Harbison, Robert. 2000. Reflections on Baroque (London: Reaktion Books)

Koestlé-Cate, Jonathan. 2015. ‘Baroque Folds’, Art and Christianity, 82: 2–5

Vidler, Anthony. 2001. Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)

Augustus Lunn

Jacob's Dream, 1944, Egg tempera on gesso panel, 124.5 x 78.7 cm, Private Collection; Howard and Roberta Ahmanson

A Prophetic Stair

Commentary by Anna Freeman Bentley

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Modern British artist Augustus Lunn’s (1905–86) surrealist visual interpretation of Genesis 28 hovers between poise and fluctuation. It was painted in 1944, towards the end of the Second World War. Sleeping outdoors would have been common practice for soldiers during the war, a necessity that unites the figure of Jacob with Lunn’s contemporaries.

Painted in egg-tempera, this arch-shaped panel in matt hues of blue, pink, and gold depicts a bearded Jacob, asleep in an angular rocky landscape. Growing out of Jacob’s feet, in the centre of the image, is a solid, perspectivally-rendered, spiral staircase with angels moving up and down it. At the top, a geometrically-abstracted, tonally-light transcendent world emerges with overlapping shapes, shadows, doors, and portals.

Jacob sleeps soundly, wrapped in a cocoon-like sheet with swirling folds in a deliberately archaizing, Byzantine style. The cocoon form repeats, with angels grouped in clusters underscoring the surreal nature of the dream.

Lunn’s precise execution, with its elements of naturalistic solidity, grounds the vision in an unnerving way. The layering of the colours, particularly effective in the top section, allowed Lunn to ‘reconstruct’ Jacob’s dream by combining biblical interpretation with surrealist forms (Taylor 2014: 109). The surrealism and the naturalism together offer a vertiginously stable depiction of God's promise.

To the left of the stair’s central axis, the sky begins to curl into a piece of paper, suggesting the notion that God the creator is himself an artist painting a picture. The use of repeated triangle shapes throughout suggests the Trinity, prompting the viewer to consider the staircase’s meaning. Does this Spirit-empowered, God-given vision point to the Son, just as Jesus’s words about himself in John’s Gospel quote Genesis 28? In John, the angels are also described as 'ascending and descending’, yet this time they do so ‘upon the Son of man’ (John 1:51). The staircase takes on a new, and prophetic, meaning.



Taylor, Lyrica. 2014. Still Small Voice: British Biblical Art in a Secular Age (18502014) The Wilson—Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum 17 January–3 May 2015 (Pinatubo Press)

William Blake :

Jacob's Ladder, c.1799–1806 , Pen and grey ink and watercolour on paper

Anna Freeman Bentley :

Descent, 2011 , Oil on 8 panels supported by scaffolding

Augustus Lunn :

Jacob's Dream, 1944 , Egg tempera on gesso panel

Spiralling under Control

Comparative commentary by Anna Freeman Bentley

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Read by Ben Quash

A standard staircase can symbolize a journey (as Jacob is journeying in Genesis 28, fleeing his father’s house) but the image of a spiral staircase evokes different ideas, with aspects of mystery and disorientation. All three artists here (myself included) have imagined Jacob’s ladder as a spiral.

William Blake’s painting presents a wafty dreamlike vision, Augustus Lunn’s interpretation a surrealist hyperreality, and my painting an interior architectural materiality that is much less like a dream. Despite these differences, each of the artworks employs mirroring devices emphasizing the hallucinatory, bewildering nature of the vision so as to confound the viewer.

Blake is arguably the first artist to have chosen a spiral staircase to visualize Genesis 28 (starting a visual tradition of artistic responses). His painting flows weightlessly and the figures on the stairway are rendered in ever-diminishing detail as they ascend. His stairway leads into the heart of the sun itself, filling the image with light. Like a lighthouse (a building often housing a spiral staircase; Cook 1914: 308), this image acts as a beacon of God’s promises and a sign of the safety offered to Jacob and his descendants. A sense of harmony is evoked as people embrace on the stairs; the vision is inviting.

In Lunn’s interpretation we are offered a quieter and more composed view. Nonetheless, on closer inspection, it is not straightforward: its disconnected, collaged parts fit together according to some internal, unknown logic. Jacob sleeps in his own capsule, the angels descend in bubble-like groups and Heaven is presented to us in geometric shapes with layered depth that evokes another dimension. The image communicates a simultaneous jarring and enticing connection to infinity.

Looking at the circular stairway in Descent we see repeated paintings all the way up the walls. Might they perhaps represent the angels ascending and descending? The dark-pink wall behind is inconsistently lit, with some areas partly illuminated while others sit in shadow, suggesting multiple light sources that lead our eyes up and around the painting. Reaching the top, we see a small glimpse of an upper room. The stairs’ many curls seem real and unreal all at once. Jacob and the angels are not painted but their presence is felt.

Blake is the only artist of the three who clearly depicts the stone on which Jacob rests his head, which later becomes the cornerstone of Jacob’s response, marking the sacred significance of ‘this place’ (Genesis 28:17). Yet these paintings can invite a comparison between the artists’ varied responses to the text and Jacob’s reaction to his dream: an instinct to create something in return,

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone which he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. (Genesis 28:18)

Gilles Deleuze (1925–95) uses the concept of the fold to describe something of the tension between inside and outside, surface and depth, or maybe even dream and reality. For Deleuze, these dichotomies fold in and out on themselves. These three paintings are each structured around folds and curls. Fabric folds around and beneath Blake’s Jacob and swirls around his angels just as the stairs themselves seem to swirl in a mighty breeze. Lunn’s Jacob is engulfed in tight folds and deliberate creases of material, and the sky itself curves into the lightness of a sheet of paper. Descent presents a staircase that swirls as one long Rapunzel-like curl of hair with rich reds and deep ochre colours evoking the drama of a baroque interior. These twists are like Deleuze’s ‘folds’, making surfaces expressive of depths and (conversely) dreams expressive of reality.

In both Lunn’s and Blake’s paintings, heaven is painted with reduced tonality in faded pastel colours, as if reminding the viewer that this realm is still far off and we are, as yet, unable fully to visualize its reality. In Descent, the ‘upper room’ is not revealed at all; we only see a way to access it. Our attention is thrown back to the staircase itself, with its twists and turns, leaving us wondering, what is this thing that connects humans on earth to heaven above? Or perhaps even, in the light of John 1, who is it?

These three very different renderings of spiral staircases present the vision of Jacob’s dream as a reminder that whilst Jacob’s life appears to be spiralling to the point of chaos, God offers a profounder vision to show Jacob and those who read Genesis 28 thereafter that in truth these consequences are all under his control.



Cook, Theodore Andrea. 1914. The Curves of Life (London: Constable and Company)

Deleuze, Gilles. 1992. The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. by Tom Conley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press)

Lipton, Diana. 1999. Revisions of the Night (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press)

Oakley, Howard. ‘Tyger’s Eye: The Paintings of William Blake, 9—Jacob’s Ladder and the Stairway to Heaven’, The Eclectic Light Company, available at… [accessed 31 October 2018]

Next exhibition: Genesis 29:21-35

Genesis 28:10–22

Revised Standard Version

10 Jacob left Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran. 11And he came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. 12And 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! 13And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; 14and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. 15Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.” 16Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” 17And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone which he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19He called the name of that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that thou givest me I will give the tenth to thee.”