The three artworks discussed here, Bartolomé Murillo's Jacob's Dream (1665),1 the miniature from the Sister Haggadah,2 and Jacques Stella's Jacob's Ladder (1650),3 all depict the opening scene of Parashat Vayetze, Yaakov's dream in Beit El. Though each depiction contains similar components (a sleeping Yaakov, a "סֻלָּם", and angels), the varying details included by each artist suggest different interpretations of what Yaakov actually saw in his dream and the meaning of this vision.
Murillo sets the scene in a dark wooded landscape. In the center of the composition, light breaks through the clouds and illuminates the ladder and its angels. The cherubs are clothed in pastel colored robes and appear carefree and peaceful as they climb up and down. The two angels on the lower rungs of the ladder look towards Yaakov who is asleep on the floor, with his shepherd's staff and satchel at his side.
This image is a more simplistic rendering of the subject, with fewer figures and a barer background. The ladder crosses the composition on a diagonal, extending from Yaakov in the bottom left corner to two visages that peer through a stylized cloud at the top right.4 One angel ascends the ladder while three surround Yaakov on the floor. One of these sits at Yaakov's feet, while another stands behind him, supporting him as he reclines.
Stella's painting elicits a somewhat haunted sensation, as the scene is set against a gray backdrop, broken by lightning-like streaks of yellow. A golden beam lined with angels connects God in the top left of the image to the sleeping Yaakov on the bottom right. Several sheep graze at Yaakov's feet, and, in the distance, a city seems to float in the air.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and various interpretive stances:
In Stella's painting, the angels descend the ladder in pairs and seem to converse with each other, taking no notice of Yaakov. In the Sister Haggadah, in contrast, some of the angels are not on the ladder at all but rather hover over the figure of Yaakov on the floor. Murillo's image charts a middle course. While most of his angels are simply climbing the ladder oblivious to Yaakov, one of the angels at the bottom appears to be bidding him farewell while another seems to be about to greet him.
These differences relate to an unknown in the Biblical text. Though the reader is told that the angels were going up and down the ladder, the text does not elaborate any further about their accompanying actions, nor about the significance of their movements. This leaves the meaning of the vision ambiguous. Did the angels symbolize a protective guard for Yaakov?5 Did they form some sort of receiving line in advance of Yaakov's entering into a discussion with God? Or, did Hashem simply want Yaakov to see His messengers discussing their respective tasks?6 See Yaakov's Dream for extended analysis.
Both Murillo and Stella portray six angels, while the Sister Haggadah depicts only four. In Bereshit, no number is mentioned but Bereshit Rabbah reads into the plural form of the verbs "עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים" that there were pairs of both ascending and descending angels. This leads the Midrash7 to the interpretation that the angels represented the four kingdoms which would subdue Israel, but then be conquered in turn. For elaboration, see Yaakov's Dream.
In both the Sister Haggadah and Murillo's painting, a ladder figures prominently in the center of the composition. In Stella's painting, in contrast, the "סֻלָּם" appears as a shaft of light, forming a bridge between Hashem and Yaakov. Though most readers familiar with modern Hebrew translate the word "סֻלָּם" as ladder, in Biblical Hebrew the word is actually a hapax legomenon, appearing only in this story. It is likely derived from the root סלל (to lift or elevate), and it can thus sustain a number of meanings including not just a ladder but also a ramp or stairs.8 The different depictions might also relate to the object's symbolism.9 Is the "סֻלָּם" simply meant to represent a connection between heaven and earth, or is there some significance to climbing up and down, rung by rung?10
"With my staff…"
Murillo depicts Yaakov lying on the floor with nothing more than a staff and small bundle by his side. Similarly, in the Sister Haggadah, Yaakov has no possessions other than the clothes on his back. In Stella's image, in contrast, several sheep graze by Yaakov's feet. Did Yaakov leave home empty-handed, or did he set out with a herd of sheep or other possessions?11 This question relates to the dual nature of Yaakov's departure from home. On one hand, he left as a fugitive, fleeing Esav's wrath, and likely might not have had time to gather supplies. On the other hand, he was also sent by his father to find a wife, and one would have expected him to bring along gifts as a dowry.12 A second related factor might be the family's economic status. Was Yitzchak wealthy like Avraham, or was he perhaps much poorer and simply could not afford to send his son off with many presents?13 For more, see Sale of the Birthright.
One Stone or Many?
In the Sister Haggadah and Stella's painting, the rock upon which Yaakov rested his head is not visible.14 In Murillo's image, in contrast, there are three stones near Yaakov's head. The simple reading of the text suggests that Yaakov chose just one stone from many to act as a pillow. The shift from the plural language of "וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם" to the singular form of "וַיִּקַּח אֶת הָאֶבֶן" when Yaakov awakens, though, leads the Midrash to suggest that there were a number of rocks selected which then united into one. Suggestions vary as to the specific number chosen with two, three, four and twelve all being options.15