Stairway to Heaven…
William Blake, Jacobs Ladder, 1800
Jacob sleeps deeply at the foot of a heavenly ladder spiralling upwards, culminating at the sun. Angelic figures gracefully glide up and down the stairs, one carrying a basket of fruit, another a child on her shoulder and a third carries a scroll. Is it a dream? Or is it a reality? Blake leaves it open for the viewer to decide. Jacobs vision of a ladder leading to heaven is described in Genesis (28:11–19) but Blake’s image is a thousand times more moving than words (in my biased opinion!). The visionary subject matter is ideally suited to his ethereal, delicate style. Above all, his composition is sublime.
This mysterious triptych is thought to illustrate spirit and matter. It is from a large collection recently rediscovered in the Mehrangargh Fort (home of the present Gaj Singh II) in Jodphur, Rajasthan. It is now in the royal collections at the Mehrangargh Museum Trust. The paintings are dated from 1725 to 1843 and were created for three successive maharajas of the Rathore clan. The last of these maharajas was the spiritually inclined Man Singh (r. 1803-1843) who became a devote disciple of the legendary yogi, Jalandharnath. Man Singh bestowed so much power upon the Naths, that they began to play a considerable role in the governing of the state. Ultimately, the Naths became so problematic to the kingdom (involved in kidnappings and other misdemeanours) that Man Singh was overthrown (with the then ever present help of the British). Due to Man Singh’s esoteric leanings, a hugely unusual body of art was created under him; one that veered dramatically away from the more conventional depictions of pleasure palaces, powerful rulers and Hindu gods. His artists composed startling, inventive and to this day, unique images, depicting the mysteries of the universe from a Nath perspective. Mysteries so inaccessible that today, experts are unable to unravel them. In the painting above, the artist has left one panel blank presumably to illustrate immaterality, or the spirit. This approach seems far ahead of its time, or perhaps artists such as Kasimir Malevich were just passé!
Cosmic Oceans, one of seven folios from the Nath Charit. Attributed to Bulaki, 1823, 44.1 x 118.2 cm.
These works are unusually large for Indian paintings. The two images above were shown at the Gardens and Cosmos exhibition at the British Museum last year. The waves of this cosmic ocean resemble fish scales and are rather stylish!
This lovely medieval image depicts the garden of paradise with the Virgin Mary. It is by an anonymous German artist known as the upper Rhenish master. The young Jesus sits on the grass playing with a musical instrument while in the right hand corner lies a small, defeated dragon.
I must say that I am not much drawn to the works of Lucas Cranach. His figures may have been fashionable at the time, but to me they seem scrawny and undernourished. However, I have included one of his paintings in this post since he made many a picture of paradise.
This is a beautiful thangka painting, illustrating the moment when the Buddha left his body and attained Nirvana.
Persian rugs often illustrate paradise as a garden.
This Persian miniature (mid 1500s) comes from the Nizami Khamsa – a book of poems – this image illustrating the ascent of the Prophet Mohammed. Mohammed rises on a magical horse-like creature surrounded by golden tongues of flames. The surrounding angels make offerings to him. The rich palate of lapiz blue, gold ,reds, and oranges, is exquisite.
And lastly, Botticelli’s unforgettable painting of Primavera. It’s mythological caste of characters as well as the fruits, and flowers, symbolise love, virtue, marriage and fertility. It was painted for a bride of the Medici family. Every last detail in Botticelli’s work abounds with meaning and poetry, and appears to be a veritable pagan paradise!