Genesis 22, The Sacrifice of Isaac
There are five images (Exhibits A, B, C, D and E) on this page (2 above and 3 below). Look at the first two and decide which of the two is that of Lorenzo Ghiberti, the one that won the artist the commission for the bronze doors of the Baptistery at Florence in 1401. Why was it chosen? This was the basis of the first class discussion in HP001/002.
Once you have made that determination,
take a look at the Rembrandt, Blake and Caravaggio paintings/engravings that follow
(C, D and E). Do they consider the same moment and the same elements decisive
for understanding Genesis 22? Next, note that the five images are paired
with one of the four imagined elaborations of Genesis by Soren Kierkegaard
in his great study of the "knight of faith" Abraham Fear and Trembling.
The pairings have been based on some presumed affinity between the passage
and the particular painting. This choice was made by the instructor. There is other wise no connection between Kierkegaard and rembrandt or Caravaggio or Blake. What is the basis for each pairing?
Do you agree with each? What new pairings would you advocate? Which
of the five versions of the sacrifice would you choose for the best rendering
of Genesis 22. Soren Kierkegaard (tr. Alistair Hannay),
Fear and Trembling, pp. 44-48 (Penguin Books):
There was once a man; he had learned as a child that beautiful tale of how God tried Abraham, how he withstood the test,
kept his faith and for the second time received a son against every expectation....
This man was no thinker. He felt no need to go further than faith. To be remembered as its father seemed to him to be surely
the greatest glory of all, and to have it a lot to be envied even if no one else knew...
It was early morning. Abraham rose in
good time, had the asses saddled and left his tent, taking Isaac with him,
watched them from the window as they went down the valley until she could see them no more. They rode in silence for three
days; on the morning of the fourth Abraham still said not a word, but raised his eyes and saw afar the mountain in Moriah. He
left the lads behind and went on alone up the mountain with Isaac beside him. But Abraham said to himself" "I won't conceal
from Isaac where this way is leading him." He stood still, laid his hand on Isaac's head to give him his blessing, and Isaac bent
down to receive it. And Abraham's expression was fatherly, his gaze gentle, his speech encouraging. But Isaac could not
understand him, his soul could not be uplifted; he clung to Abraham's knees, pleaded at his feet, begged for his young life, for
his fair promise; he called to mind the joy in Abraham's house, reminded him of the sorrow and loneliness. Then Abraham
lifted the boy up and walked with him, taking him by the hand, and his words were full of comfort and exhortation. But Isaac
could not understand him. Then he turned away from Isaac for a moment, but when Isaac saw his face for a second time it
was changed, his gaze was wild, his mien one of horror. He caught Isaac by the chest, threw him to the ground and said:
"Foolish boy,, do you believe I am your father? I am an idolater. Do you believe this is God's command? No, it is my own
desire." Then Isaac trembled and in his anguish cried" "God in heaven have mercy on me, God of Abraham have mercy on
me; if I have no father on earth, then be Thous my father!" But below his breath Abraham said to himself: "Lord in heaven I
thank Thee; it is after all better that he believe I am a monster than that he lose faith in Thee."
When the child is to be weaned the mother blackens her breast, for it would
be a shame were the breast to look pleasing
when the child is not to have it. So the child believes the breast has changed but the mother is the same, her look loving and
tender as ever. Lucky the one that needed no more terrible means to wean the child!
Rembrandt, Sacrifice of Isaac
It was early morning. Abraham rose in good time, embraced Sarah, the bride
of his old age, and Sarah kissed Isaac, who had
taken her disgrace from her, was her pride and hope for all generations. So they rode on in silence and Abraham's eyes
were fixed on the ground, until the fourth day when he looked up and saw afar the mountain in Moriah, but he turned his gaze
once again to the ground. Silently he arranged the firewood, bound Isaac; silently he drew the knife. Then he saw the ram that
God had appointed... From that day on, Abraham became old, he could not forget that God had demanded this of him. Isaac
throve as before; but Abraham's eye was darkened, he saw joy no more.
When the child has grown and is to be weaned the mother virginally covers
her breast, so the child no more has a mother.
Lucky the child that lost its mother in no other way!
William Blake, Abraham and Isaac
It was early morning. Abraham rose in good time, kissed Sarah the young
mother, and Sarah kissed Isaac, her delight, her joy
for ever. And Abraham rode thoughtfully on. He thought of Hagar and of the son whom he had driven out into the desert. He
climbed the mountain in Moriah, he drew the knife.
It was a tranquil evening when Abraham rode out alone, and he rode to the
mountain in Moriah; he threw himself on his face,
he begged God to forgive his sin at having been willing to sacrifice Isaac, at the father's having forgotten his duty to his son. He
rode more frequently on his lonely way, but found no peace. He could not comprehend that it was a sin to have been willing
to sacrifice to God the best he owned; that for which he would many times have gladly laid down his own life; and if it was a
sin, if he had not so loved Isaac, then he could not understand that it could be forgiven; for what sin was more terrible?
When the child is to be weaned the mother too is not without sorrow3, that
she and the child grow more and more apart; that
the child which first lay beneath her heart, yet later rested at her breast, should no longer be so close. Thus together they suffer
this brief sorrow. Lucky the one who kept the child so close and had no need to sorrow more!
Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac
It was early morning. Everything has been made ready for the journey in
Abraham's house. Abraham took leave of Sarah, and
the faithful servant Eleazar followed him out on the way until he had to turn back. They rode together in accord, Abraham and
Isaac, untilthey came to the mountain in Moriah. yet Abraham made everything ready for the sacrifice, calmly and quietly, but
as he turned away Isaac saw that Abraham's left hand was clenched in anguish, that a shudder went through his body - but
Abraham drew the knife.
Then they turned home again and Sarah ran to meet them, but Isaac had lost
his faith. Never a word in the whole world is
spoken of this. Isaac told no one what he had seen, and Abraham never suspected that anyone had seen it.
When the child is to be weaned that mother has more solid food at hand,
so that the child will not perish. Lucky the one who
has more solid food at hand!
In these and similar ways this man of whom we speak thought about these events. Every time he came home from a journey to the mountain in Moriah he collapsed in weariness, clasped his hands, and said: "Yet no one was as great as Abraham; who is able to understand him?"
And one last word by a 16th century student of Florentine art (and an artist himself):
Giorgio Vasari, Lives of Artists..., "[In the competition for the doors for the Baptistery] the panel by Filippo was almost as good [as Ghiberti's]: his scene of Abraham sacrificing Isaac showed a servant who, as he waits for Abraham and while the ass is grazing, is drawing a thorn from his foot." I-138