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)
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.”