Sunday, February 25, 2018

“God Put Abraham to the Test”

The Sacrifice of Isaac
From an Illustrated Vita Christi
English (East Anglia), c. 1480-1490
Los Angeles, c. 1480-1490
MS 101, fol. 11

“God put Abraham to the test.
He called to him, "Abraham!"
"Here I am!" he replied.
Then God said:
"Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love,
and go to the land of Moriah.
There you shall offer him up as a holocaust
on a height that I will point out to you."

Early the next morning Abraham saddled his donkey, took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac, and after cutting the wood for the burnt offering, set out for the place of which God had told him.

On the third day Abraham caught sight of the place from a distance.
Abraham said to his servants: “Stay here with the donkey, while the boy and I go on over there. We will worship and then come back to you.”

So Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, while he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two walked on together,
Isaac spoke to his father Abraham. “Father!” he said. “Here I am,” he replied. Isaac continued, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”
“My son,” Abraham answered, “God will provide the sheep for the burnt offering.” Then the two walked on together.

When they came to the place of which God had told him,
Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.
Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.
But the LORD's messenger called to him from heaven,
"Abraham, Abraham!"
"Here I am!" he answered.
"Do not lay your hand on the boy," said the messenger.
"Do not do the least thing to him.
I know now how devoted you are to God,
since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son."
As Abraham looked about,
he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket.
So he went and took the ram
and offered it up as a holocaust in place of his son.

Abraham named that place Yahweh-yireh; hence people today say, “On the mountain the LORD will provide.”

Again the LORD's messenger called to Abraham from heaven and said:
"I swear by myself, declares the LORD,
that because you acted as you did
in not withholding from me your beloved son,
I will bless you abundantly
and make your descendants as countless
as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore;
your descendants shall take possession
of the gates of their enemies,
and in your descendants all the nations of the earth
shall find blessing—
all this because you obeyed my command."

Abraham then returned to his servants, and they set out together for Beer-sheba, where Abraham lived."

Genesis 22:1-19
Verses 1-2, 9A, 10-13, 15-18 (shown above in blue bold type) constitute the First Reading for the Second Sunday of Lent, Year B

Frieda Leah Shifman, The Story of Abraham and Isaac
Israeli, c. 1879-1880
New York, Jewish Museum
Abraham is a figure of tremendous importance to three of the world’s great religions.  Both Judaism and Islam claim him as their literal blood ancestor, through his sons by different mothers:  Isaac for the Jews and Ishmael for the Arabs.  He is equally revered in Christianity as both a blood ancestor of Jesus and the “father in faith” of all Christians. 

Abraham is the first to make a covenant with God, sealed with the blood of circumcision in every generation; he receives the three mysterious visitors, perhaps angels, perhaps the three persons of the Trinity, who predict that in his extreme old age he and his wife, Sarah (who had up till then been unable to conceive a child), will become parents and that their descendants will be “as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore” (Genesis 22:17).



Sacrifice of Isaac
From Hours of Constable Anne de Montmorency
French, 1549
Chantilly, Musee Conde
MS Ms1476, fol. 5v







The story of how God tested Abraham’s faith by requesting that he sacrifice the only son of his wife, Sarah, the son through whom he was to produce the favored “countless” descendants stands at the center of the story of Abraham.  It is his complete trust in God and his willingness to follow this terrible request that is a measure of his adherence to the covenant and his faith and that earns him the confirmation of God’s promise. 



For Christians this story also has a particularly poignant relevance.  It was cited as an exemplar of faith in action as early as the first few decades after the Resurrection in the Letter to the Hebrews (probably written as early as the 60s AD1 when the Temple still stood and a majority of Christians were Jewish): 
“By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.”
He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead and he received Isaac back as a symbol.”
(Hebrews 11:17-19) 





Abraham’s wiliness to comply with God’s command and Isaac’s participation in its preparation by carrying the wood for the holocaust were seen as prefigurations pointing to Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary. 
Master of Edward IV, Christ Carrying the Cross and Isaac Carrying the Wood for the Sacrifice
From Speculum humanae salvationis
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1485
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 6275, fol. 23v

This idea is made explicit in such statements as the following, from the Wakefield Cycle of mystery plays
“Good Christian people, these that ye have seen
Are foreshadowers of Jesu's sacrifice,
Bearing the woes of earth most keen,
Without gainsaying, in God's service.
So Christians all that sorrow borne
And kept God's word without a miss,
Jesu, that wore the crown of thorn,
Bring them all to heaven's bliss.”
Spoken by “an angel” in the “Sacrifice of Isaac” section of the Wakefield Mystery Plays (English, early 15th Century)2

Iconographic Survey

In Christian iconography the subject also appears very early.  It is one of the most popular elements in the early sarcophagi produced for Roman Christians immediately after the recognition of Christianity as a legitimate religion by the Edict of Milan in 315.  It can usually be found on a corner of the sarcophagus frontal, or prominently placed near the central scene.


Fragment of a Sarcophagus with the Sacrifice of Isaac
Roman, c. 300-325
Vatican City, Museo Pio Cristiano

Sarcophagus Frontal with Old and New Testament Scenes
Roman, c. 300-325
Vatican City, Museo Pio Cristiano
Sarcophagus with New Testament Scenes and Sacrifice of Isaac
Roman, c. 300-325
Vatican City, Museo Pio Cristiano
Sarcophagus Frontal with Portraits of a Husband and Wife
Roman, c. 325-350
Vatican City, Museo Pio Cristiano
Sarcophagus frontal with Old and New Testament Scenes
Roman, c. 325-350
Vatican City, Museo Pio Cristiano
Sarcophagus Frontal with Old and New Testament Scenes
Roman, c. 325-350
Vatican City, Museo Pio Cristiano
The Sacrifice of Isaac
Roman, 4th Century
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum


Sacrifice of Isaac in African Red Slip Ware Bowl
Late Roman Provincial (Tunisia), c. 350-430
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
Its popularity has remained constant for nearly all of the 1,700 years since that time. Initially, as in those above, the images showed the next to last act of the Sacrifice of Isaac, the moment at which Abraham stands posed with his knife, ready to slay his son.  

Indeed, the image is so compelling that it has been repeated innumerable times between the fourth century and the twenty-first. 

Sacrifice of Isaac
Fragment from a Portable Altar
French, Beginning of 11th Century
Paris, Musee du Louvre
Capital with the Sacrifice of Isaac
Catalan,, c. 1100
Jaca, Cathedral




























The Sacrifice of Isaac
From Commentary on Psalms 1-50
French (Noyon), c. 1195-1205
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M338, fol.200v

Master of the Roman de Fauvel, Sacrifice of Isaac
From Bible historiale of Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1300-1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS 156, fol. 25




























Workshop of the Boucicaut Master, Sacrifice of Isaac
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1400-1424
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 394, fol. 20r
Sacrifice of Isaac
German, 16th Century
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Cristofano Allori, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1600-1625
Cherbourg-Octeville, Musee Thomas Henry
Workshop of Conrad Schueler Witwe
Sacrifice of Isaac
German, 1696
Celle, Evanglical Church

William Blake, The Sacrifice of Isaac
English, c. 1783
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
Marc Chagall, Sacrifice of Isaac
Russian, c. 1960-1966
Nice, Musee national Marc Chagall

But the climax is not the only part of the story that was represented.  Virtually every part of the story has been depicted by artists. 

From the moment in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac


Jean Colombe and Workshop, God Tells Abraham to Sacrifice
From the Hours of Anne of France
French (Bourges), c. 1470-1490
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 677, fol. 106r

To the journey toward the mountain

Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy, Abraham and Isaac Travel to the Mountain
From the Bible of Jean de Sy
French (Paris), c. 1355-1390
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 15397, fol. 35
_Moyses van Uyttenbroeck, Abraham and Isaac Begin to Ascend the Mountain
Dutch, 1620
Rennes, Musee des Beaux-Arts

To Isaac carrying the wood


Abraham and Isaac
French, c. 1235-1280
Reims, Cathdral of Notre Dame

Abraham and Isaac
From Weltchronik
German (Regensburg), c. 1355-1365
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M769, fol. 47v
Master of Guillebert de Mets, Abraham and Isaac
From a Book of Hours
French (Lille), c. 1440-1450
New York Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M304, fol. 17r

Hektor and Georg Mullich, Abraham and Isaac Set Out
From a Geman Textual Miscellany
German (Augsburg), c. 1450-1460
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M782, fol. 38v
Abraham and Isaac, Going to the Mountain
From Speculum humanae salvationis
French, c. 1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 188, fol. 26v

Lucas van Leyden, Abraham and Isaac
Dutch, c. 1517-1519
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Gaspard Dughet, Landscape with Abraham and Isaac
French, c. 1665
London, National Gallery
Jean Restout, Abraham Taking Leave of His Servants
French, c. 1730-1750
Paris, Musee du Louvre
Johann Heinrich Ferdinand Olivier, Abraham and Isaac
German, 1817
London, National Gallery
James Tissot, Abraham and Isaac
French, c. 1896-1902
New York, Jewish Museum

To Abraham explaining to Isaac that he must kill him

Jan Victors, Abraham and Isaac
Flemish, 1642
Tel Aviv, Museum
Rembrandt van Rijn, Abraham and Isaac
Dutch, 1645
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Antoine Coypel, Abraham and Isaac
French, c. 1700
Valenciennes, Musee des Beaux-Arts
Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich, Abraham and Isaac
German, c. 1750
Budapest, Szépmûvészeti Múzeum
A few artists from later periods have also thought about and imagined the Aftermath of the story, when Abraham has freed his son.  Some have also imagined the gratitude and joy with which his mother welcomes him safely home.
David Teniers, Abraham and Isaac Sacrifice the Ram
Flemish, c. 1653
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
Henri Joseph Francoise Baron de Triqueti
Isaac Welcomed by His Mother
French, c. 1825-1874
Chantilly, Musee Conde


























Anonymous, Abraham and Isaac Returning to Sarah
Danish, Late 19th-Early 20th Century
Viborg, Domkircke
However, the most frequently depicted part of the story is the last moment in which the angel appears to stop Abraham.  This scene is imagined in various ways by artists.

Some see Isaac standing


Sacrifice of Isaac
From the Tiptoft MissalEnglish (Cambridge), c. 1315-1325
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M107, fol. 141v
Sacrifice of Isaac
From Les anciennes hystoires rommaines
French (Paris), c. 1375-1400
London, British Library
MS Royal 16 G VII, fol. 28
Johann Joseph Resler, Abraham and Isaac
Austrian, c. 1762
Vienna, Belvedere Museum

Some see Isaac kneeling
Sacrifice of Isaac
From Church of Notre-Dame-de-la Couldre, Parthenay
French, Mid-12th Century
Paris, Musee du Louvre

Sacrifice of Isaac
From Bible historiale of Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1400
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 9, fol. 25v
Lorenzo Monaco, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1408-1410
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Donatello, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1418
Florence, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Genesis Window
German, c. 1430
Ulm, Cathedral of Our Lady







































Master of Margaret of York, Sacrifice of Isaac
From Compendium historiae universalis by Aegidius of Roya
Flemish, c. 1450-1460
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 A 21, fol. 3r
Sacrifice of Isaac
From a Bible moralisee
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1455-1460
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 E 7, fol. 7v
Rambures Master, Sacrifice of Isaac
From Histoire ancienne jusqu'a Cesar
Flemish, c. 1455-1465
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M212.020v
Sacrifice of Isaac
From a Breviary
French, c. 1506-1516
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M8.061r

Albrecht Altdorfer, Abraham and Isaac
German, c. 1520-1525
Strasbourg, Cabinet des estampes et des dessins
Sacrifice of Isaac (Detail)
French, c. 1550-1600
Monfort-l'Amaury, Church of Saint Pierre


























Peter Paul Rubens, Sacrifice of Isaac
Flemish, c. 1612-1613
Kansas City (MO), The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
David Teniers the Younger After Veronese, Sacrifice of Isaac
Flemish, c. 1654-1656
Chicago, Art Institute
Rembrandt van Rijn, Sacrifice of Isaac
Dutch, c. 1655
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Giuseppe Piamontini, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, 1722
Florence, Palazzo Pitti
Leonardo Coccorante, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1730-1740
Beauvais, MUDO, Musee de l'Oise

























William Blake, Sacrifice of Isaac
English, c. 1783
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

Some few see Isaac lying on the ground.

Sacrifice of Isaac
From the The Golden Hagaddah
Spanish (Catalonia), c. 1325-1350
London, British Library
MS Additional 27210, fol. 4v
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1724-1729
Udine, Palazzo Patriarcale

But the vast majority of artists have imagined Isaac positioned on the altar of sacrifice, frequently bound, as he awaits the first stroke of his father’s knife.

Sacrifice of Isaac
From the Huntingfield Psalter
English (Oxford), c. 1210-1220
New York, Pierpoint Morgan Library
MS M43, fol. 11
Sacrifice of Isaac
Single Leaf from a Missal
English, c. 1220-1225
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 914
Sacrifice of Isaac
From Compendium historiae in genealogia Christi by Peter of Poitiers
English, c. 1250-1275
London, British Library
MS Additional 60628-1, Image 3
Sacrifice of Isaac
From Psalter of St. Louis
French (Paris), c. 1270
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 10525, fol. 10

Sacrifice of Isaac
From a Breviary
Flemish (Cambrai), c. 1275-1300
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 J 18, fol. 273r


























_Jacopo Torriti, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1290
Assisi, Church of San Francesco, Upper Church
Sacrifice of Isaac
From a Haggadah for Passover
Spanish (Castille), c. 1300
London, British Library
MS Oriental 2737, fol. 93v



























Sacrifice of Isaac
From The Taymouth Hours
English (London), c. 1325-1350
London, British Library
MS Yates Thompson 13, fol. 25v
The Angel Intervenes
From The Taymouth Hours
English (London), c. 1325-1350
London, British Library
MS Yates Thompson 13, fol. 26



























Michiel van der Borch, Sacrifice of Isaac
From Rhimebible by Jacob van Maerlant
Dutch (Utrecht), 1332
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 B 21, fol. 13r

Sacrifice of Isaac
From Weltchronik
German (Regensburg), c. 1355-1365
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M769, fol. 048r
Workshop of the Boucicaut Master, Sacrifice of Isaac
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1400-1424
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M394, fol. 20r
In 1401 the Sacrifice of Isaac was the chosen subject for the famous contest to determine the sculptor who would create the famous bronze doors for the Baptistery of the Cathedral of Florence, one of the greatest public projects of the early Renaissance.  Both Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti entered the competition.  Ghiberti's composition was chosen and he went on to create this door (and later another one for the same building).  Brunelleschi went on to engineer the construction of the great dome of the Cathedral, one of the great feats of early Renaissance architecture and the first great dome in Western Europe since the fall of Rome.

Filippo Brunelleschi, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, 1401
Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello
Lorenzo Ghiberti, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, 1401
Florence, Museo Nazional del Bargello




















Lorenzo Ghiberti, The Story of Abraham
Italian, c. 1425-1452
Florence, Baptistery

The plaque above, from Ghiberti's second set of doors for the Baptistery of Florence, include several episodes from the life of Abraham and demonstrate how much understanding of perspecitve and complex composition had advanced in just over two decades.
Master of Jouvenal and Workshop, Sacrifice of Isaac
From Mare historiarum of John of Cologne
French (Anjou), c. 1447-1455
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 4915, fol. 32
Robert Boyvin, Sacrifice of Isaac
From a Book of Hours
French (Rouen), c. 1495-1505
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS H1, fol. 41r
Sacrifice of Isaac
German, 16th Century
London, Victoria and Albert Museum


























Brass Dish with the Sacrifice of Isaac
German, 16th Century
Philadelphia, Museum of Art
Giulio Romano, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1516-1518
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
Giulio Romano was one of the most gifted of Raphael's
assistants.


Raphael and Assistants, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1513-1514
Vatican City, Apostolic Palace, Stanza d'Eliodoro, Ceiling



























Lucas Cranach the Elder, Sacrifice of Isaac
German, c. 1523-1526
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Michelangelo Buonarotti, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1525-1526
Florence, Casa Buonarotti




























Titian, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1542-1544
Venice, Church of Santa Maria della Salute
 Jean Mignon After Primaticcio, Sacrifice of Isaac
French, c. 1545
Philadelphia, Museum of Art
Etienne Delaune, Sacrifice of Isaac
French, c. 1550-1583
Strasbourg, Cabinet des estampes et des dessins
Bernard Palissy, Ceramic Dish with Sacrifice of Isaac
French, c. 1560-1580
Limoges, Musee national Adrien Dubouche
Attributed to P.M., Silver Dish with Sacrifice of Isaac
English, c. 1567
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Tintoretto, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1577-1578
Venice, Scuola Grande di San Rocco
Paolo Veronese, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1585-1588
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
Annibale Carracci, Sacrifice of Isaac in a Landscape
Italian, c. 1590-1600
Paris, Musee du Louvre



























Ludovico Carracci, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1586-1587
Vatican City, Pinacoteca Vaticana
Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1603-1604
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi
Here Caravaggio gives us a more realistic vision of the subject, including the facial expression of the struggling Isaac, who in this painting, is not a calmly acquiescent character.
Il Cigoli, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1607
Florence, Galleria Palatina del Palazzo Pitt
Pieter Lastman, Sacrifice of Isaac
Dutch, 1612
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum



























Peter Paul Rubens, Sacrifice of Isaac
Flemish, c. 1620
Paris, Musee du Louvre
Jacob Jordaens, Sacrifice of Isaac
Flemish, c. 1625-1626
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera
Domenichino, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1627-1628
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado



























Cornelis de Vos and Jan Wildens, Sacrifice of Isaac
Flemish, c. 1631-1635
Frankfurt-am-Main, Staedel Museum
Rembrandt van Rijn, Sacrifice of Isaac
Dutch, 1635
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum



























Mathias Stomer, Sacrifice of Isaac
Dutch, c. 1640
Ajaccio, Palais Fesch, Musee des Beaux-Arts
Laurent de La Hyre, Sacrifice of Isaac
French, c. 1650
Detroit, Institute of Arts
Juan de Valdes Leal, Sacrifice of Isaac
Spanish, c. 1657-1659
Private Collection
Giovanni Antonio Burrini, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1685
Paris, Musee du Louvre
Mattia Bortoloni, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1717-1718
Piombino Dese, Villa Comaro
Johann Michael Rottmayr, Sacrifice of Isaac
German, c. 1728-1730
Maria-Lanzendorf, Pilgrimage Church of Our Lady of Sorrows








































Anonymous, Sacrifice of Isaac
Italian, c. 1750-1755
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
Tea Caddy with Sacrifice of Isaac
English, c. 1770-1800
London, Victoria and Albert Museum



























Gustave Moreau, Sacrifice of Isaac
French, c. 1870-1898
Paris, Musee Gustave Moreau
Not infrequently, also, artists have combined the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son with other scenes from the Old Testament, particularly scenes from within the same Book of Genesis. 
Mosaic Scenes from the Book of Genesis
Sicilian, c. 1180
Moneale, Cathedral
The Sacrifice of Isaac and the Arrival of Rebecca
From a Psalter
English (Gloucester), c. 1200-1225
Munich, Bayerische StaatsBibliothek
MS Clm 835, fol. 12
Noah's Ark and the Sacrifice of Isaac
From the Psalter of St. Louis and Blanche of Castille
French, c. 1225
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 1186_fol. 13v




























Noah's Ark and the Sacrifice of Isaac
From a Psalter
French (Paris), c. 1250
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 10434, fol. 11v

Queen Mary Master, Abraham and Isaac Traveling
to the Mountain and Sacrifice of Isaac
From The Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 11v






























Mazarine Master and Workshop, Sacrifice of Isaac and Joseph Thrown into the Well
From Livre des merveilles of John Mandeville
French (Paris), c. 1410-1420
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 2810, fol. 167
Abraham and Isaac Traveling to the Mountain, Sacrifice of Isaac and Annunciation to Mary
German, c. 1420-1430
Fischingen, Evangelical Parish Church
Master of the Ango Hours, Crucifixion of Jesus and Sacrifice of Isaac
From The Ango Hours
French (Rouen), c. 1515
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 392, fol. 48






Jan Joest van Kalkar, Abraham and Isaac
Traveling to the Mountain and Sacrifice of Isaac
Dutch, c. 1505-1508
Kalkar, Church of St. Nicholas




































Sacrifice of Isaac and Isrealites Gathering Manna
From a Missal
German (Maria Laach), 1558
London, British Library
MS Harley 2835, fol. 145
Jacopo Bassano, Summer (Sacrifice of Isaac)
Italian, c. 1575
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
Gerard Jode After Maarten de Vos, Abraham and Isaac Traveling to the Mountain and Sacrifice of Isaac
From Thesaurus sacrarum historiarum veteris testamentum
Flemish, 1585London, British Museum,
Since the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac has for so long been seen as a prototype of the self-sacrifice of Jesus, in obedience to His Father’s will, there is also a long tradition of setting elements of the story alongside the corresponding element in the Crucifixion story.  This was primarily done through the popular late medieval books Speculum humanae salvationis (The Mirror of Human Salvation) and Biblia pauperum (Bible of the Poor).  However, it can also appear in devotional books, prayer books and books of hours, where it may be more hinted at indirectly than the explicit side-by-side comparisons in the Speculum and Biblia pauperum. 
Christ Carrying the Cross and Isaac Carrying the Wood for the Sacrifice
From Speculum humanae salvationis
French (Alsace), c. 1370-1380
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 511, fol. 22v
Christ Carrying the Cross and Isaac Carrying the Wood for the Sacrifice
From Speculum humanae salvationis
German (Nuremburg), c. 1380-1399
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M140, fol. 24v
Masters of Zweder van Culemborg, Crucifixion of Jesus and Sacrifice of Isaac
From a Book of Hours
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1430-1435
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 79 K 2, fol. 164r-165
Rambures MasterAbraham and Isaac Traveling to the Mountain, Jesus Carrying the Cross, Elijah Meeting the Widow of
Zarephath Gatthering Wood
From a Biblia pauperum
French (Amiens), c. 1470
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 A 15, fol. 31v
Rambures Master, Sacrifice of Isaac, Crucifixion of Jesus and Isrealites Cured of Snake Bits by the Brazen Serpent
From a Biblia pauperum
French (Amiens), c. 1470
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 A 15, fol. 32r
Masters of the Dark Eyes, Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity and Circumcision of Jesus
From a Prayer Book
Dutch_c. 1490-1500
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 135 E 19, fol.39v
In this image the connection between the story of Isaac and the life of Jesus is very subtle.  The Sacrifice of Isaac appears as a bas-reliev on the base of the altar on which the Infant Jesus is about to be circumcised.
Jesus Carrying the Cross and Isaac Carrying the
Wood for the Sacrifice
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1495-1505
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS H5, fol. 56r

Crucifixion of Jesus and Sacrifice of Isaac
From a Book of HoursFrench (Paris), c. 1495-1505
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS H5, fol. 58r




























This idea, of the equation between Isaac and Jesus, was very common in the later middle ages.  Not only did those who could the literate laity find it in their prayer books and in the Biblia pauperum and Speculum humanae salvationis, but even the illiterate knew it from sources such as the mystery plays that were very common in medieval towns.  In English literature, the texts of several of these plays, from Wakefield, York, Chester and other towns, have survived in spite of a vicious crackdown on their production in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when they were entirely suppressed.  As the Narrator of the Chester plays says at the end of the story of Abraham and Isaac:
 “By Abraham I may understand
The Father of Heaven, that can fand
With his son's blood to break that band
The Devil had brought us too.
By Isaac understand I may
Jesu that was obedient aye,
His father's will to work alway
His death to undergo.” 3

This idea is even more explicitly stated in the closing words of God the Father, spoken by the actor Brian Glover, in the 1985 production of The Mysteries mostly drawn from the Wakefield play cycle, but incorporating parts of plays from other towns, with modernized text by the poet Tony Harrison4 starting at 2:30 on the clip below. 


1. “Hebrews: Introduction” New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970m Washington, D.C., Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, on the web @ http://www.usccb.org/bible/scripture.cfm?bk=Hebrews&ch=
2.  Browne, E. Martin. Religious Drama 2: Mystery and Morality Plays, New York, Living Age Books, 1958, p. 69 @ https://archive.org/details/religiousdrama2m007883mbp
3.  Matthews, Godfrey W.  “The Chester Mystery Plays”, Journal of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 1923, p. 171 (I have modernized the spelling of several of the words). @https://www.hslc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/76-9-Mathews.pdf
4.  I would encourage anyone interested to watch this performance. The first part of the three plays:  Nativity, The Passion and Doomsday can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrK_MgK0hA8&t=1s  You will find it a rewarding experience.  For information on the production see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mysteries

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

No comments: