Religious Art: ‘The Ascent’

David Linn, ‘The Ascent’, 1993, oil on canvas; Museum of Church History and Art.

Another installment in the series, in which David Linn’s award-winning painting ‘The Ascent’ is considered.

At first glance the message is clear and important, as Linn writes of the piece: “Living the gospel demands that we help one another climb upward out of the darkness of the world into the light of truth.”  In addition it might also suggest that focussing upon the people around us rather than ourself is the only way to finally ascend.

Yet, I believe there is a notable absence from this painting that is as important as what is represented.  Where is the divine in this image?  Perhaps the cascading light is sufficient imagery and yet I sense that this painting challenges me to turn toward others in my ascent rather than God.  It might be easier for me to turn toward an omnipotent and omniscient God for help when I am in need rather than to turn to a person who is only a step above, or even below, me.  It is hard to trust them to lift or push as I struggle to climb.

The divinity in this image is in process, emerging from those who are, as Linn writes, helping each other ascend.


  1. Is there a particular scripture or scriptural scene that this modeled on? I ask because it seems on first glance that Plato’s Allegory of the Cave woudl be the true precursor for this image.

  2. Like the concept, but I’m not a huge fan of the dockers and button-ups… it looks a little bit like a BYU singles ward activity.

  3. W. V. Smith says:

    I like this one. It reminds me of the George Q. Cannon statement about heaven. A place where everyone is reaching down to bring others up. “This is my work . . .”

  4. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    My problem with this is that Robert Green is going to have to haul someone up, and that’s just going to lead to a big heaping mess at the bottom.

  5. Thomas Parkin says:

    Not even close to David Linn at his best.

    He is sometimes just a little too much, for me, and sometimes has planted himself a step or two away from where I would plant myself. But when it works for me, I find him absolutely haunting.

    As here:

    More typical of his costuming: :)

    The question is: do you experience this religion this way? And my answer is ‘yes I do.’ ~

  6. “I sense that this painting challenges me to turn toward others in my ascent rather than God. It might be easier for me to turn toward an omnipotent and omniscient God for help when I am in need rather than to turn to a person who is only a step above, or even below, me.”

    In this way I think the painting is a good response to the charge that religion is harmful because it causes people to constantly look to the next life or “a better world” where God will end all suffering instead of doing everything possible to solve the world’s problems here and now. This painting portrays a theology that teaches that godliness is helping and being helped by others. I think Pres. Uchtdorf’s last conference talk about being the Lord’s hands is very applicable here.

  7. Can anyone say USSR

  8. Perhaps you need to ditch the sarcasm, watch the Sunrise and see if you still need a scripture to experience the divine. You are surrounded with the divine every day. Wanting the artist to explain their artwork to you is like making a comedian explain every joke. If you don’t get it then….

  9. Mommie Dearest says:

    I appreciated the links at #5. The images there are more fun for me to look at than the image in The Ascent. I’m not dazzled by the OP image, and I apologize for my pickiness.

    And yes, #7, I can say USSR. I know it was meant in a snarky way, but you may not be aware of the magical way of painting which was/is Russian impressionism and realism. (Very few people are) I am right now struggling to learn what they knew about color. Incidentally, the David Linn images are tonal in nature, that is they do not have their full range of color. Their rendering is magnificent, but just imagine if they were in full color. Then, I think would find them breathtaking.
    Google-image Russian painters or Russian Impressionism for a taste of what painting in Russia, and later the USSR was like. I’d take it as a compliment.

  10. I think it’s great that a print of this painting is hanging in my stake center. When this came out as the inside cover art in the Ensign 15 years ago or so, there was a captioned scripture associated with it. Not sure now as it’s been so long but it might have been Doctrine & Covenants 81:5: “Wherefore, be faithful; stand in the office which I have appointed unto you; succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.”

  11. re # 7, Russian realism from the early Soviet period actually is quite striking and much of it, if viewed without the ideological input of the period in which it was created, invites revitalized interpretations that are very complimentary to humanity.

    In any event, the painting featured in the original post is not part of that genre.

  12. Aaron R. says:

    Thomas, I agree that this is not one of David Linn’s best, but I also think it is still an important piece, partly because I suspect that it is more accesible than some of his other work. I agree that he captures something about my religious experience, or perhaps what I want my experience to be like.

    Ben, I think that is nice insight and one that resonates with me. I feel compelled to struggle with suffering. In fact a friend recently recommended a BYU Studies article that explores that exact them. The link is here:

    John, I’m also a big fan of that print (as you might suspect).

  13. I’ve always enjoyed this painting. I’m not all that well versed in art, but i always reminds me that we are not saved isolation, but as we help those around us. I like john f’s reference to D&C 8:15. It goes well with the image for me.

  14. There is no denying that an atheistic humanist would have no reason to object to this particular painting.

  15. Or really any of David Linn’s paintings, Geoff. But I don’t see why that’s a bad thing.

  16. John Mansfield says:

    We have a large print of this hanging in our home. I like Linn’s other works better too, but there is only so much intensity that a middle-class Mormon living room can bear. One aspect I find interesting is the sharp focus on the central character while those below him are obscured by shadow and the one above by light. Also the role of the curtain that seems like the stone roof of a cave when viewed from below, but a less substantial barrier when seen with more light.