Genesis 14:1–17 narrates episodes from the story of Abraham (here still Abram), following his expulsion from Egypt and his relocation in the land of Canaan. The narrative opens with a military conflict, in which, after twelve years of submission, five kings of the cities in the area of Sodom and Gomorrah (near the Jordan river) rebel against the ruling group of four kings of the region of Babylonia (v.4). The four ruling kings from Mesopotamia, after a successful campaign, break into Sodom and Gomorrah, seizing goods and food, and taking captives, including Lot, Abram’s nephew, who was living in Sodom (vv.11–12; c.f. Genesis 13:11–13). Alerted to the event, Abram gathers several hundred men and attacks the army overnight, recovering and bringing back Lot, his possessions, and the prisoners (vv.13–16).
The episode was of crucial importance in medieval biblical commentaries. Indeed, Prudentius opens his Psychomachia (c. 405)—probably the earliest and most influential medieval allegorical poem, describing the conflict of vices and virtues—with the battle of Abram. As allegory, the episode serves as a Christian model of how to have faith and to be freed from the ‘foulness of desire’. It is not a matter of coincidence that the capture of Lot which constitutes the inception of Prudentius’s narration takes place in Sodom, as the inhabitants of that city have already been defined in Genesis as ‘wicked, great sinners against the Lord’ (Genesis 13:13).
In the tenth-century illumination, the army has already left Sodom, the walled city on the left, carrying with them their booty: food, animals, and prisoners, including Lot. The glosses added to Prudentius’s poem explain that Abram signifies the spirit fighting against evil, while the kings are connected to the senses to which human beings are subjugated.
But while virtue is here shown in bonds, it will soon appear in armour. The story of Abraham is a progression to inner purity, in which the ensuing battle with the kings is extremely significant (Hanna 1977: 110). Saint Ambrose of Milan (c.340–397) suggests that ‘the four kings are bodily and worldly enticements’, while Abram is ‘a trained mind which has received the true wisdom’ and by recovering Lot’s possessions he restored in him ‘the vital substance of the soul’ (Saint Ambrose of Milan 2000: 70–71).
The mosaic from the floor of the parish church of Casale Monferrato (c.1150), was once part of an extensive cycle showing other scriptural scenes. Viewers walking in the church would not only have been able to see Abram, dressed as a twelfth-century knight, chasing and killing the four kings from Mesopotamia. Around it they would also have seen Jonah and two episodes from the history of the Maccabees. Thus, the meaning of this particular scene would have been enhanced by its juxtaposition with other episodes, probably through their common connection to the experience of the Crusades. In contemporary preaching, the Crusade was described as an opportunity presented by God to a generation in need of personal salvation, thus emphasising (as in Ambrose’s writings) the battle as a spiritual journey (Phillips 2007: 61–98).
The third example appears on the parchment of the royal psalter made for King Louis IX (c.1260). The same scene, Abram killing the kings, is represented differently from Casale Monferrato’s mosaic, as now the patriarch, imposing in stature, is fighting on foot rather than riding a horse, raising his sword, and ready to impart the final blow. The floor mosaic and the illuminated manuscript could hardly have been more different in terms of their visibility, their accessibility, and the media in which they realized this same biblical episode. Nevertheless, both works subtly address their audiences as meditative tools. In the illuminated page there appears the fleur-de-lis, the coat of arms of the king of France. Thus, Abram is here exceptionally represented as a king (even though he never had this title). Moreover, the inclusion in the work of the royal arms emphasizes a direct link between the patriarch and the French monarch, inviting its viewer not only to consider the allegorical meaning of the scene, but also Abram as the model of royal victory. This might have given visual as well as textual inspiration to a crusading King as he read his psalter. Louis went on Crusade more than once, seeking to free a Jerusalem which (like Lot, perhaps) he saw as captive and in need of rescue from a heathen enemy. The Abram in this illumination would have been a powerful and encouraging exemplar for the French king.
Phillips, Jonathan P. 2007. The Second Crusade: Extending the Frontiers of Christendom (New Haven and London: Yale University Press)
Saint Ambrose of Milan. 2000. On Abraham (Etna, California: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies)
Smith, Macklin. 1976. Prudentius’ Psychomachia: a Reexamination (Princeton: Princeton University Press)
Hanna, Ralph. 1977. ‘The Sources and the Art of Prudentius' Psychomachia’, Classical Philology, 72: 108–115