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 (1850–2014) The Wilson—Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum 17 January–3 May 2015 (Pinatubo 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.”