Who Will Climb the Ladder?

This post introduces Open City, a regular blog series with reviews of films, books, museums, music, and important cultural events. Some of the posts cover new arrivals; others, like this inaugural one, revisit classic works.

Portland, Oregon

A few years ago, wearing our hats as private consultants, my colleagues and I developed the curriculum and trained the faculty at the classical school Trinity Academy in the historic neighborhood of North Portland. Last month, at the invitation of head of school Dr. Johanna Clark, I returned to make a presentation. Jo asked me to give a talk where I would make a lively case for classical education. On this trip, I wore a new hat. In fact, this was the very first time I represented Cana Academy at a public gathering. I was keen to convey something at the heart of our new mission.  

It was a beautiful, crisp morning. The room was packed with sharp, bright students and their wonderful teachers. Then, as we engaged in discussion, the key question of the morning emerged: Who will climb the ladder?

No, we were not exploring the rise to corporate success. Rather, when that question arose, we were all looking closely at a classic work of art, White Crucifixion, a painting created in 1938 by Marc Chagall and now in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Our discussion was focused on the powerful imagery in Chagall’s masterpiece; and the ladder we asked about rested there, just to the right of the central figure.

Most of the key details in the painting are distinctively Jewish. At the center of the painting, the crucified Jesus wears a traditional prayer shawl, his head bears a traditional cloth covering, and the sign atop the crucifix is marked with Hebrew only. Beyond the central image of the crucifixion, positioned along the edges of the canvas are images of other painful events, all stemming from or related to our modern age.  We see Germany’s Kristallnacht, the Russian pogroms, various victims in diaspora.  A menorah, diminished by the loss of a few of its candles, lies at the foot of the cross. The Torah is aflame in the lower right corner. A  figure known in Jewish art as the Wandering Jew and identified with the biblical figure of Elijah is passing through the smoke and exiting the scene. Hovering above everyone are the spirits of Jewish ancestors mourning the plight of their descendants.

And there is Jesus, the most oft-depicted Jew in history. Jesus of ancient Israel, crucified by the Romans, is now Jesus the suffering Jew standing in for all Jews who suffer at the hands of modern oppressors.  

These elements were all powerful enough; there was plenty to discuss.  But something else particularly stirred us as we looked at Chagall’s great work. It was the deposition ladder. Such a ladder is common in depictions of the Crucifixion. In this painting, what stands out is that the ladder is empty. No one is poised nearby to climb it. And that is the source of the question: Who will climb the ladder? That is, who will climb up to Jesus and take him down?

Chagall had us. We were moved. We felt the condition of things, the suffering of Jesus, the suffering of our Jewish neighbors. We shifted uneasily in the face of the reality, made clear by the modern details of the painting, that the suffering depicted there took place right in the heart of Western culture. To make matters worse, it sure felt as if no one would climb the ladder.

At the same time, our experience was marked by some measure of hope. For one thing, we noticed that a shaft of muted, pearly-white light descends from heaven, thinly cloaking the body of Jesus like a transparent shroud. More heavenly light circles his head and circles the menorah at his feet. The same shaft that shrouds Jesus in the center partly illuminates one of the ancestral spirits above; at the opposite end of the painting it leads our eye to several of the suffering descendants, most immediately a fleeing man with the Torah held fast in his arms. Sensually, then, not everything in the painting bends to darkness; and layered into the work at those significant places, the light makes us sense something sacred.

We also felt the tug of responsibility, the impulse to climb the ladder ourselves. With all the painting’s elements related to and directed toward the body of Jesus, our eyes and then our hearts focused there too. The painting did its job quite powerfully. It made us feel what we ought to feel. And once we entered into the painting, and as we stayed true to the response it elicited, we soon arrived at the answer to the question, Who will climb the ladder?

The full poignancy of the question was not lost on the gathering that morning in North Portland. The same pull towards Jesus deepened our gaze at the suffering in each of the scenes encircling his figure. From our perspective, the responsibility for climbing the ladder, for deposing the body of the oppressed, extended seamlessly from Christ to each figure in the painting and back again.  

This was a true blue classical moment:  A gathering of friends engaged with a great work, thinking hard together, seeking clarity through discussion, better for the experience of encountering each other, better for walking the bridge between the ancient and modern worlds, and better for the beauty they experienced.

That kind of moment is what Cana Academy is all about.  


Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy.