The west entrance of Bath Abbey is full of carvings. There are saints, symbols, and angels – lots and lots of angels. Now, it’s not unusual for angelic beings to feature in church decoration, but it is unusual for them to be on ladders. And it’s even more unusual for them to be upside down.
On each side of the huge window at the front of the abbey is a carved ladder with six angels in the process of climbing up or down. Since those heavenly creatures have wings, I don’t really know why they need ladders, but I guess they must have their reasons.
Dreaming of Angels on Ladders
In the Bible, in the book of Genesis, Jacob had a dream in which he saw angels ascending and descending on a ladder stretching from earth up into the heavens. And, if legend is to be believed, thousands of years later, in the late 15th century, a bishop in Bath, England had pretty much the same dream.
Oliver King had been appointed Bishop of Bath, and when he arrived to inspect the place, he found the abbey in a miserable state of disrepair. The roof was gone, and the building was basically a skeleton of its former self. Bishop King was in a quandary about what to do. Should he rebuild it or just tear it down?
For days, the bishop prayed for an answer. Then one night he went to bed and had a dream. It was like the one he had read about in the Bible in the story of Jacob’s ladder. It convinced him that this was a holy place and he should rebuild the church. He decided to have his vision of angels and ladders carved into stone on the west front entrance. And that’s the reason there are angels on ladders on Bath Abbey.
The original angels had been carved about 1500. And, although there had been a few attempts at restoration throughout the centuries, 400 years later some of the heavenly host had worn away into unrecognizable lumps of stone. So, around 1900 sculptor George Frampton was called in to renew some of them. The top six angels that we see today are his work.
But, if you look closely, you might notice something a bit odd about two of these angels: The second from the top on the right and third from top on the left are coming down their ladders headfirst. Now, anyone who has ever used a ladder knows that you don’t go down headfirst – not on purpose, anyway. So why are these angels in such an awkward position?
Blame it on George Frampton. When he was doing the restoration work in 1900, he decided that this divine duo should go down their ladders headfirst. But why? Did he think something in the worn away stone looked like the originals had been upside down? Or was he just trying to figure out a way to represent descending figures? After all, in a still image it’s hard to tell whether an angel is meant to be going up or coming down.
As no one really knows why the angels are upside down, I’m afraid it will have to remain a mystery. However, I do have a theory.
I think it might have happened something like this…
Abe and Angelique: The Upside-Down Angels
The scene takes place in heaven. Archangel Michael is standing behind one of those old-fashioned cameras – the big black kind that sits on a tripod. To take a picture, you pull a cord and it makes a big flash. We call it old-fashioned now, but in the 1500s it was very modern. In fact, it hadn’t even been invented yet on earth.
Michael is preparing the camera and talking to a group of angels. “Bishop King has been asking for a sign, so we are going to send him a vision in his dreams tonight. I thought we would give him a similar dream to the one we gave Jacob a while back. Remember? The one with the ladder? I think that’s just what the bishop needs to convince him to restore the abbey. But let’s change it up a bit. This time, we’ll make it two ladders, with six angels on each one. Now let’s set up the props.”
There was a flurry of activity as a group of angels pulled out two long ladders. They were extension ladders and they kept getting longer and longer until they reached all the way down to earth.
Michael shouts, “Okay everyone, we have just a few more hours before the bishop wakes up. So let’s assume our positions. I want some of you to look like you’re going up and others to look like you’re going down.”
Among the angels posing on the ladders that evening were Abe and Angelique. Angelique was second from the top on the right and Abe was third from top on the left. They were two of heavens more quirky angelic beings and always had a different way of seeing things. As they stood on the ladders with the others, they looked around and frowned.
Then they looked at each other. Their faces brightened, and they smiled. Angelique held up three fingers and whispered, “On the count of three… one, two, three!” Then they both flipped around and landed on their ladders head down.
Michael was just ready to snap the photo when he saw them. “Abe, Angelique – what are you doing? That’s not how we climb down a ladder, is it? We go feet first.”
Angelique answered, “We know, Michael, but if we pose like that, we all look the same. People won’t be able to tell if we’re coming or going. We don’t want it to look like all of us are leaving earth. It should be clear that some of us are coming down to help.”
Michael sighed and smiled. “Okay, everyone, let’s get this image fixed in the bishop’s mind. Abe, Angelique, you’re perfect just as you are.”
– Margo Lestz
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