During the Middle Ages, a popular image of the stages of life in Roman Catholicism was of a mandala with Christ in the center and the different ages of man represented as spokes around that hub (see my post on The Stages of Life and the Liturgy of the Hours). With the dawning of the Protestant Reformation, however, this type of image underwent a significant transformation. Instead of a mandala with spokes, the new visual that came to captivate many viewers was of an ascending and descending staircase (see lithograph above by Nathaniel Currier from the 19th century), with an infant on the left starting the journey, a robust individual in midlife at the very top, and a feeble old person on the last stair to the right. This sort of visual model seemed better suited to the new importance of work, ambition, and changing social roles in the emerging market economy of Protestant Europe (compare it to the line graphs used by corporations to chart the rise and fall of profits in a company). From the 17th through the 19th century, theater productions would be put on showing a tableau vivant of living actors appropriately costumed to represent the life stages of either men or women (or sometimes both, with a married couple on each step) at different stages of development (each step usually represented a decade of life). To some extent, this visual model still captures our imagination when we think of the trajectory of human life, with an ascent toward greater maturity, responsibility, and capability until reaching a peak at age 50 (for women, it was often earlier, at age 30 or so), before descending by steps into a condition of decrepitude and ultimately death. In the past forty years, however, this view has been largely supplanted by a model of human development that allows for more growth, vitality, and abundance during the last decades of life.
For more information about the stages of life in different cultural and religious traditions, get Thomas Armstrong’s book The Human Odyssey: Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life (Ixia/Dover).