Embellishing the Steps: Elements of Presentation and Style in the Heavenly Ladder of John Climacus

Embellishing the Steps: Elements of Presentation and Style in the Heavenly Ladder of John Climacus

By John Duffy

Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol.53 (1999)

Introduction: he Sinai Peninsula, a bleak and barren wilderness jutting into the northern end of the Red Sea, acted like a magnet from Early Christian times, attracting to its solitude men and women earnestly engaged in the struggle to save their eternal souls. In the religious sphere the special mark of the place was its association with Moses and his meetings with God. It was here, near the elevation known as Mt. Sinai, that the future prophet came face to face with the divine and received the charge to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage; it was on the summit of Mt. Sinai that Moses later accepted into his hands the tablets of God’s law. The primordial contacts between heaven and earth were to dominate the image of the location—a holy ground to the Jew, Christian, and Muslim—for the rest of time.

In the second half of the sixth century, when the Byzantine Empire reached its greatest extent, Justinian I ordered to be constructed, near the foot of Mt. Sinai and on the traditional site of the burning bush, one of his great and lasting monuments, the monastery of St. Catherine, originally intended to double as a fortress at this strategic point in the region. Over the course of its long history the spiritual foundation, in addition to housing an active community of religious men, became a rich repository for works of Christian art, principally in the form of icons, books, and sacred vessels. The building complex and other glories of the monastery were for the first time explored and systematically examined in this century, during the joint Princeton-Michigan-Alexandrian expeditions to Sinai in 1958, 1960, 1963, and 1965.

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