Great Works: Icon of the Heavenly Ladder of St John Klimakos

Late 12th century, anonymous, Holy Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai

A board game gives a god's eye's view. The players sit around the playing area and look down on it, like the Olympians in Homer, as they survey the battlefields of Troy. They have no visibility problems of the kind that arise in life down on the ground – or in most pictures. All is displayed for them, as in a map or a diagram.

Board game players are not absolute masters, of course. They can move their pieces around, but they must obey the rules of the game and suffer the vicissitudes of the dice. They may lose. They may get frantically emotionally involved in the play. Still, and unlike Homer's gods, they never bodily descend into the action. They stay at a remove from the cockpit or racetrack beneath their gaze. Board games are an exercise in passion at a distance.

The origins of Snakes and Ladders are obscure. Like many of our apparently traditional institutions, it isn't all that old. The now "classic" up-and-down race game seems to have been introduced into Britain in the late 19th century by the game-makers John Jaques. It didn't arrive in the United States until the mid-20th century.

But the inspiration for these Western amusements was a much more ancient Indian game, using a similar but more complicated layout, and with each of the climbs and slides specifically moralised. Dating back to the second century, it was called Paramapada Sopanam, The Ladder to Salvation.

Despite the strong visual and conceptual echoes, no historical connection is to be traced in either direction to the Icon of the Heavenly Ladder of St John Klimakos. This John was the abbot of a monastery in Sinai, who wrote a book about salvation. The image here, based on his text, was made in Sinai or Constantinople. It shows John himself leading a troupe of monks up a 30-runged ladder from the earth to the heaven.

At the top, they are welcomed by Jesus. Along their spiritual journey they are watched and prayed for by (above) a group of angels and (below) a group of more monks. But these supporters can do nothing to intervene as the monks are continuously assailed by demons. These skinny black silhouetted figures float and walk in the air around them, strike cocky and insouciant poses, and knock, pluck and pull them off balance and off ladder.

The lost are then tipped down into a dark hole to hell at the bottom. But their fellow pilgrims don't turn a sympathetic look towards their damned brothers as they drop, but keep all eyes on the prize. They need to. The long Heavenly Ladder may be a symbol, but it's well chosen, with a good practical sense of what ladders are like – handy and perilous, a means of gradual ascent and something you can easily fall off. Game-wise, it works as both a ladder and a snake.

And the icon's likeness to the modern or ancient board game is not to be shrugged off as a coincidence. There is a common visual language. The icon's viewer may not literally look down on it, but as in Snakes and Ladders, the essential spatial relationship is a progression from bottom to top. Every figure is a cut-out piece in the game. We survey these souls' fates with both concern and detachment. It wouldn't be hard to translate this icon into a playable game with dice.

The spirit of play, almost of comedy, already informs it. The grave metaphysical subject is displayed with a diagrammatic, game-like clarity. There is the beautifully neat device of setting the ladder at a diagonal that runs from bottom left to top right corners, perfectly bisecting the picture area. There's the way the lost monks flip vertically from their perches, like metal pieces knocked down in a shooting gallery. Up/down, either/or, saved/lost: in this game there is no middle ground.



'The Icon of the Heavenly Ladder of St John Klimakos' is currently on show in Byzantium 330-1453 at the Royal Academy, London W1 (0870 848 8484), to 22 March

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas