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)