Jacopo Tintoretto
Jacob's Ladder

1577-78
Oil on canvas, 260 x 104 in. (660 x 265 cm.)
Scuola Grande di San Rocco

In Genesis 28:10-13 Jacob stops on his journey at sunset, puts his head on a stone, and goes to sleep. Then in a dream he sees "a ladder standing upon the earth, and the top thereof touching heaven: the angels also of God ascending and descending by it." From the top of the ladder, God assures him that "the land, wherein thou sleepest, I will give to thee and to thy seed."

In the Latin, and in Tintoretto's Italian, the angels traverse a scala, a word that can mean either "ladder" or "stairway." The commentaries and the iconographic tradition assume a ladder. The Glossa Ordinaria, for example, interprets the two sides of the ladder as prayer and scripture study while the steps symbolize penitence (I, 324). Nevertheless, Tintoretto has chosen to picture a broad stone stairway.

At the bottom of the stairway, Jacob rests not just his head on the stone but his whole body, embracing it with both arms. This is a reference to the stone's symbolic importance in the plan of salvation. Commentary in the Glossa Ordinaria interprets it in the light of its being anointed by Jacob after he awakens (ibid.). Isidore of Seville says it symbolizes Christ, because "Christ" means "anointed." Diodorus sees it as a type of the tabernacle that was anointed by Moses (Exodus 30:25-26). The tabernacle is in turn a type of the Church (Glossa I, 820).

As one might expect, Isidore further interprets ascending the scala as moving on "from the flesh to the spirit." So fittingly, the painting progresses from the dark but solid and precisely detailed image of Jacob, along the ever-brighter ladder, to the almost translucent image of God at the summit.

This painting is among the Old Testament images on the ceiling of the Scuola's Upper Hall; images on the walls are taken from the New Testament and are related typologically to the ceiling paintings. In this case, Jacob's dream is associated to the Ascension of Christ.

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Photographed at the site by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.