The Sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah

Anyone who can gaze at this painting for more than half a minute and give free rein to his thoughts and emotions without crying, has no soul! The instant in time, captured by the Master with such incredible nicety is, to my mind unmatched in any other work that I have seen. Taken together with the harrowing nature of the event and the turmoil in the father's heart at what he is about to do, it leaves one's powers of resistance totally inadequate for the task.
The urgency of the moment, exquisitely captured in the Angel's grasping of Abraham's wrist, the free falling of the sacrificial knife, the exposed and waiting body of Isaac, his only beloved son - everything caught in a flashing instant's time I find irresistable. As in so many events recounted in the Bible - both the New and Old Testaments - the psychological power of the imagery created leaves the ordinary man with little he can do but succumb to emotions he cannot explain - far less control.

And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the Angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything to him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not with-held thy son, thine only son, from me. Genesis XXII: 10-12.

It is from this event that human society commenced - not without failures and backsliding in different periods of history - to reject the concept of the sacrifice of the first born, so beloved of some societies in ancient times and, to our great misfortune - even up to the present day.

Eventually, after the Exodus from Egypt, God re-introduced the ban - perhaps with a backward glance of remorse at what He had been forced to do to the first-born of Egypt - by declaring that every first-born male was sanctified and belonged to the Lord and must be redeemed from Him:-

(Exodus 13; 13:.....and all the firstborn of man among thy children thou shalt redeem.

This is a ceremony still carried out in orthodox and observant Jewish families.

In a lighter vein, we have a pleasant little story from our Rabbis, which concerns the beginning of this chapter: verse 2 opens in the Hebrew text: "And He said, Take now thy son, thine only son whom thou lovest, Isaac.....". Why, the Rabbis ask, did God have to repeat three times, in three different ways, the command to Abraham? The Rabbis explain: When God said "Take now thy son," Abraham replied: "My son? I have two sons - Ishmael is also my son!" So God tried again and said: "Thine only son whom thou lovest!" To which Abraham again replied: "But I have two sons, I tell you - and I love them both!" So finally God had to name the boy and said "Isaac." Both the King James and the New English Version, reverse the sequence in the translation, placing the identification of Isaac in the centre. St. Jerome's Vulgate, however - and the first effectively translated from the Hebrew, has the correct sequence: 22:2; "Ait ei tolle filium tuum unigenitum quem diligis Isaac et vade in terram Visionis......." where the name "Isaac" clearly appears last in the sequence

By the way, don't you think that Abraham bears some resemblance to Leonardo? Or is that a heretical comment?

Here is a similarly composed rendition by Caravaggio - but although compelling, it seems to lack the frightening urgency of Rembrandt's - it's the falling knife, together with Abraham's hand and the set of his head on his shoulders that creates this instancy and makes all the difference, don't you think?

I offer my thanks to  The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg and to Christus Rex, for their kindness and generosity in allowing me to reproduce these works.

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