Stairway To Heaven Illustrated Inspirational Art

    When I was painting the inspirational art for Rocktasia, The Movie, one of the segments had to be Led Zeppelin’s classic, Stairway To Heaven. Considered the biggest hit of FM radio, Stairway To Heaven is one of the most requested songs of all time.             
     Inspirational Art, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the artwork Disney Studios along with other animation studios commissioned at the start of production of an animated feature film. The art was not produced by animators but by designers and independent illustrators brought on to create concept art that would in turn inspire and help set a direction for the film's official design team.
    My job as a conceptual artist, was to illustrate in as few pieces as possible, the style the Stairway To Heaven segment could take. One of the problems was that showing the “stairway” meant that the characters from the song would be either moving toward or away from the viewer. This layout naturally obscures some of the background characters and gives a preference to the foreground characters even if they are not major players in the story of the tune. My answer to this problem was to design the stairway as a spiral staircase which when viewed from the bottom, looking straight up, gives a three hundred sixty degree view. The characters do get smaller as the stairway spirals up and away from the viewer but the characters on the staircase are walking in line and therefore not obscuring each other.
    An angle looking straight up through a spiral staircase is a tricky perspective and placing the characters firmly on each step requires a large degree of precision so I took an easy way out and made the stairway to Heaven a billowy spiral of soft clouds. After all, it is going up into the sky to heaven and making it look as if viewed through the oculus of a temple dome it is in part a homage to the great Renaissance painter Correggio’s masterpiece, The Assumption of the Virgin.

    When I was painting Stairway To Heaven I was also painting at Universal Citywalk as part of the tourist attraction outside of a restaurant designed to look like a Spanish painter’s loft. One day a young woman came by and saw me painting it and claimed she just had to have it. I ask why? She said it was because she was a missionary to China and she obviously thought it looked like a Christian themed painting. 
    I explained to her that it was not Christian at all but that all the imagery was actually pagan. The Lady who is “buying a stairway to heaven” is tossing her gold coin payment not to the “coin diving” cherubs but to pagan cupids, Roman Gods. The store which is “all closed” is based on the Greek Parthenon and the “sign on the wall” which has “two meanings” are the Latin words for One Way.
    I chose One Way for two reasons; In the early Seventies when Zep recorded Stairway there was a Christian youth movement known as the Jesus Freaks and their motto was “One Way”. I always thought this was a particularly bad motto for them to have chosen because I was sure they meant no ambiguity and that “One Way” meant “There is only one way to heaven (through Jesus Christ)”. But “One Way” can just as easily mean “Belief in Jesus Christ is but one way to get to heaven”. What I’m sure they meant to say was; “ONLY Way”. Also, I would imagine a road to heaven is a one way trip. You don’t run into any return traffic.
    I then pointed out, as her face turned from religious ecstasy to vile revulsion, that the “pipers” playing the tune are mythological satyrs playing pan flutes and that the overall style is Neoclassical.
    “But what about the angel in the center flying up to the golden cross in the sky with the orb of white light coming from it?” she asked.
    The “angel” is actually Icarus from Greek mythology who built wings made of wax and flew too close to the sun. He’s there because he’s Led Zeppelin’s record company mascot. And the “gold cross” is really a gold sword that’s hilt deep into a white marble stone which represents the Sword In The Stone from ancient English mythology. The painting is designed to be looking straight up at a temple dome and should be mounted on a ceiling so there is up or down orientation and if she had turned it around the cross would have been an obvious sword. And then I dropped the big bomb which was telling her the whole painting was an illustration of the lyrics to a Led Zeppelin song. Zeppelin is probably the number one rock band on the Christian enemies list even before the Rolling Stones as guitarist and Stairway co-writer Jimmy Page was widely rumored to be a Satanist.
    She ran away screaming. I had to laugh.
    A couple days later a man came by, took one look at it and said, “Cool, Stairway To Heaven. I gotta see this when it’s done.”
    “Yes,” I smiled. “How did you know?”
    “In the corners of the dome are the band members’ logos from Led Zeppelin Four,” he answered.
    Some people get it. But the ones who don’t are more fun to watch.

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