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We've looked at artistic interpretations and applications of ladders in the past on this blog, and there have been several high profile installations and events dedicated to the humble structure. It is often used as a metaphor for progress, from children's board games to symbolising the purchase of property or career progression. The depiction of ladders in art through human history shows proof of their importance to people at all stages of historic cultural development. In the modern day ladders are often found as sculptures; Charlie Brouwer is prolific in his use of them as components of an installation which represents the community and there have also been installations by other artists on Dartmoor, and now in New Zealand.
Gerry Judah designed Jacob's Ladder for Gibb's Farm, a sculpture park in Kaipara Harbour. It is made from sectional steel, rises 34 metres into the air and references the biblical story of Jacob dreaming of heaven and earth. Many other ladder sculptures, charity projects and important staircases in big cities share the name and association.
Michaelangelo may have used several ladders to climb his scaffold to paint the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, but he did not include any in the lofty fresco. When he was invited back to paint a wall fresco twenty years later he did include a ladder in the scene. The figures of Christ and the Saints are set against a blue background, and Saint Lawrence is seen clutching a ladder, which symbolises his martyrdom. He was put to death on a grate over hot coals, and the construction of the ladder mimics the form of a grate while drawing on the association with Jacob.
African tribes were known to use ladders to access cliff-side homes and the sculptural and sometimes ornate ladders they used are considered collectors’ items today. These ladders were made from a single pole with foot and hand holds carved into the side and similar constructions have been seen in South American tribal homes that are built off the ground, proving the efficacy of the design as functional yet decorative. The Dogon tribe were known to have lived in cliff-side homes as recently as 300 years ago, and for many thousands of years before that. Their ladder design was informed by the method of accessing tall treetops by cutting or fixing footholds into the side of a tree, providing a permanent yet unobtrusive method of height access.
These are all relatively new examples of ladders appearing in art, but just how far back do they go? Until recently it was thought that a cave painting in Spain from the Mesolithic era (10,000 years ago) depicting two people harvesting wild honey using a ladder was the earliest proof of ladders being used, and certainly the first instance of them in art. Now, scientists have found another set of paintings in Spanish caves, which they believe date back 64,000 years. Uranium-Thorium dating techniques were used to determine the dates of the pictures, which is more accurate than radiocarbon dating. This date surprised the researchers, as it is 20,000 years before the first modern humans are thought to have spread to mainland Europe. The people responsible for these markings were Neanderthals, a distant cousin of modern man.
These markings and what they show indicate that Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than first thought, and there have been other discoveries in recent years that indicate they wore jewellery and buried their dead, two of the defining characteristics of early civilization. Not only were they recording their activities through cave painting, they were also using quite sophisticated tools – a ladder requires careful cutting and construction and is not a primitive design.
We will no doubt see ladders appearing in art for the rest of time; after all they have been a feature of humanity, serving the same purpose for over 64,000 years. Next time you see a ladder in a piece of art, imagine how our early ancestors would have been doing the same thing thousands of years ago.