The work triggers in the viewer a feeling of strangeness and peculiarity, impassiveness, restlessness and motion, as Madonna and Child seem to be caught in motion and captured in a transitional action. Although one might think of this narrative in one unique way, there are two opposite emotional prospects. On one hand, one sees the tenderness between the mother and child, as she approaches the baby in a protective and bounding embrace. And in another contrasting perspective, Madonna’s gaze is seen as distant and detached, acting as a sort of prophecy for the future misfortune events. This idea is believed to be echoed in later work, such as the Madonna of the New Sacristy, known as the Medici Madonna (1521-1534).
The ladder in the background that gives the name to the work, can be seen to have various symbolic connotations and multiple associations, most of them ambiguous. In one way, it is related to the Ladder of Paradise or The Ladder of Divine Ascent (c. AD 600), a literary early Christian book believed to have been a source of inspiration for Michelangelo. In the book, St John Climacus described the Christian life as a ladder with thirty steps (connecting to the thirty years of Christ’s life), illustrating the virtues through parables and historical notes. In this view, Michelangelo’s steps create a resonance and parallel with the virtuous life as described by St John, and allude to the whole life of Christ, that the little baby child awaits.
The right hand of child/Christ is turned out and dropping away from the body, which is seen to symbolize the abandonment of the body which naturally occurs in sleep or in death. This became a common symbol in Michelangelo’s works, and is later used in other creations such as in the portrait of Lorenzo de Medici (1524). In addition, the cloth the putti carry in the background is believed to be an allusion to the cloth used to cover Christ when he is helped down from the cross.
There’s a great uncertainty of the narrative that creates more questions than answers. The viewer is left wondering if the child is sleeping or nursing, why Christ is so muscled, the strange twisting motion, by which is greatly accentuated and juxtaposed by Madonna’s stillness and rigid frame. Displaying a balance between opposing and contrasting elements, most of these mysterious attributes became Michelangelo’s trademarks of his later works: the twisting movement of the body was later used in various other sculptures as a way to suggest motion, the muscular power of the Child Christ’s right arm and back, is a pose that would be echoed in the sculpture Day in the Medici Chapel, and finally the overall mysterious theme and ways of approaching a traditional subject can be found in many of his works.
Christ-Like Self-portrait: Michelangelo believed that the purification of the soul (unification with God), would lead to becoming Christ-Like. In this perspective, the infant child acts as a metaphysical and spiritual symbol of a ‘new-born’ spiritual life. The child can also be seen as a self-portrait of the artist, echoing his own journey of artistic and spiritual purification. In this perspective, it is generally accepted that the hand behind his back holds an unseen hammer, a symbol of Michelangelo’s artistic journey as a sculptor.