The Binding of Isaac
An Unbroken Line, Almost Severed
Commentary by Tom L. Freudenheim
The combined majesty and awe of Chartres Cathedral (constructed during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) includes a seemingly endless array of images, challenging both the eye and the spirit. The sumptuous so-called Royal (west) Portal is the most common entry for both worshippers and sightseers, making it easy to miss the central portal at the north entrance.
There, a group of five Old Testament figures occupies the east side of the central portal. Unlike most of the narrowly accentuated jamb figures at Chartres, these personages form a special ensemble: a highly selective survey of characters in the Hebrew Bible. They appear to have a relationship to one another. That is in sharp contrast to most of the other jamb figures at the three major Chartres portals, where an array of biblical figures seem to ignore each other.
The personages depicted are (left to right) Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and King David. Of these, the most arresting figure is that of Abraham, his left hand holding a knife while his right hand cradles the head of a young lad: his son, Isaac, whose feet are bound with rope. Both gaze upward toward their right, while standing on a clearly delineated ram. This is a reference to the story often called the Sacrifice of Isaac, as described in Genesis 22:1–19.
Abraham may be looking up listening to God or the angel who called to stop him. But he may also be looking at the priest, Melchizedek (‘righteous king’ in Hebrew) beside him, who had blessed Abram (Genesis 14:18–20) before God named him Abraham (Genesis 17:5). Moses is the central figure, gazing to the distance and holding a tablet of the Law. Next comes the priest, Samuel, holding a lamb and knife (1 Samuel 7:9), and he faces King David, whom he had anointed (1 Samuel 16:12–13).
This extraordinary ensemble can be read in a variety of ways. The centrality of Moses-the-lawgiver almost suggests a Jewish interpretation, since the Law (Torah) forms the centerpiece of Jewish liturgy. But reading the figures from left to right there’s also another kind of hierarchical progression from an early priestly and tribal people to one that accepts the concept of divinely-sanctioned royalty. Thus, David is both a genealogical and royal ancestor of Christ-the-King.
To the Victor
Commentary by Tom L. Freudenheim
In 1401, a competition was held to design a new set of doors for the Florence Baptistry. It takes more than a practised eye to figure out the winner.
Each of the seven competing artists was required to depict the Sacrifice of Isaac story (Genesis 22:1–13), within the limits of a relatively small quatrefoil form, to be cast in bronze, as part of a series of similar forms illustrating other Biblical narratives. Of the seven entries, only two competition models survive. Each is extraordinary, so determining the winner must have been akin to a horserace photo-finish.
As with any narrative, a visual presentation presumably starts with the essential elements that must be shown. In this case, it would include Abraham, Isaac, an angel, a ram, a couple of servants, a donkey, and possibly an altar and knife. Although each of the two competition models includes virtually the same elements, Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378–1455) was the winner, beating Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446).
Whereas Brunelleschi placed the primary actors assertively front and centre, with Isaac appearing compliant and suffering as he faces at his father’s hand, Ghiberti complicated the drama. In his treatment, Abraham is just a little off-centre, with a defiant Isaac even farther to the right. Here he is no child, but a maturing adolescent. He had earlier challenged his father about the whereabouts of the sacrificial lamb (Genesis 22:7). He is not about to surrender willingly.
And whereas Brunelleschi gave centre stage to the donkey (a kind of bit player in the account), Ghiberti highlighted the two servants. It is as if they could be Isaac’s buddies (they are, like him [v.12], ‘lads’ [v.3]). This possible relationship adds further psychological intensity to the scene.
At the same time their presence is a formal device. They are a visual counterweight to Isaac at the bottom of the scene just as the angel and the ram—each critical to Isaac’s salvation—are counterweights to each other at its top.
Ghiberti has deftly created a fully-balanced visual composition within the severe constraints of the competition, while simultaneously offering us a dramatic moment of confrontation between father and son. It is rare to find Isaac—generally a compliant, perhaps even less-than-admirable fellow within the biblical narrative—depicted as a young man of power. Might this reflect his Christian reception as a type of Christ, whose victimhood is part of his victory?
Salvation from On High
Commentary by Tom L. Freudenheim
Michelangelo referred to the ten panels of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s east (primary) doors of the Florence Baptistry as the ‘Gates of Paradise’ and they have been known as such ever since. Created over several decades (1425–52) they present approximately forty different scenes from the Hebrew Bible. The panel depicting the Abraham story is especially arresting, combining parts of both Genesis 18 and 22.
The panel is organized in somewhat discrete quadrants, an intensely formal organization not uncommon in Renaissance art. At the lower left, Abraham gratefully kneels before three winged figures (angels?; the Hebrew simply refers to them as men [Genesis 18:2]) and there’s a basket, presumably for the bread Abraham will offer his guests (Genesis 18:5–6), in front of him. At the lower right, the two young men Abraham took along with him (Hebrew: shene ne’arav—two lads [Genesis 22:3–5]) appear to be chatting and we see the rear of the donkey, also part of the entourage (also Genesis 22:3–5).
The upper two quadrants are especially resonant, since the left one consists primarily of cypress trees (macrocarpa, generally thought of as the ‘Monterey cypress’ but also known to grow in Italy). The tree on the right forms a clear vertical line that rearticulates the sectional organization of the panel. Ghiberti then locates the serious action—arguably the primary element of this narrative—in the right quadrant. Such placement might feel anticlimactic were it not for the dramatic three-dimensional outcropping of rocks underpinning the tableau. Because Abraham, Isaac, and the angel are modelled in less depth than the other figures—creating the impression of distance—we feel that this important event is happening elsewhere and ‘on high’, which adds to its drama.
Whereas in the text (Genesis 22:11–12) the angel calls out to Abraham, Ghiberti has the angel reaching out to grab Abraham’s wrist, preventing the sacrificial knife from slaying a cowering Isaac, who is restrained by his father’s left hand. This kind of artistic license asserts both the artist’s and God’s power. Isaac is not saved by his father but via a direct physical intervention by God’s messenger. This is a clear assertion about the source of Christian salvation, which cannot be granted by man.
Unknown French artist :
Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and David, 13th century , Stone
Lorenzo Ghiberti :
Abraham about to Slay Isaac, Baptistry Doors Competition Panel, 1401 , Partially gilded bronze
Lorenzo Ghiberti :
Story of Abraham, 1425–52 , Gilded bronze
Covenant and Conundrum
Comparative commentary by Tom L. Freudenheim
This powerful Abraham story (Genesis 18, 21, 22) is a key text for both Judaism and Christianity. Jews refer to it as The Binding of Isaac—the Akeda from the word in 22:9 (vayya’aqod, i.e., he [Abraham] bound [Isaac]). Christians understand the story as an early biblical adumbration of the Crucifixion—i.e., God the Father’s sacrifice of His Son; therefore The Sacrifice of Isaac.
In the text Abraham is commanded to take his only son (22:2). John 3:16 claims that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son’. Abraham’s earlier son, Ishmael (Genesis 16), doesn’t seem to matter here, since both Jewish and Christian traditions claim ancestry from Isaac. Hence, the central role this narrative plays in both religious traditions. Its aftermath is the renewal of God’s covenant promise to bless Abraham and his descendants, and all nations through them (22:15–18).
For Jews the episode remains enigmatic, merging the ostensibly laudable obeying of God’s command with the inconceivable killing of one’s own son. Read as part of the Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) synagogue liturgy, this theological conundrum remains inexplicable. For Christians, the cryptic nature of this narrative—God sacrificing His only Son—is inextricably tied to Christianity’s promise of personal redemption.
At Chartres, the anonymous sculptor of the Abraham door jamb has added still another layer of meaning to the image, placing the Abraham figure in the context of the Davidic legacy claimed for Jesus. It begins in Isaiah 11:1 (‘A shoot will come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch will bear fruit from his roots’) and continues in 1 Samuel 16:19 (‘So Saul sent messengers to Jesse to say, “Send me your son David...”’).
Melchizedek (left jamb figure) anoints Abraham, whose upward gaze might be toward God (whom he initially obeys), toward the angel (whom he hears), or toward the adjacent priest. The suggestion here is that from an anointer (Melchizedek) on the left to the anointed (King David) on the far right the ancestry of Jesus includes Abraham too.
There is also an assumption that the viewer will understand the meanings of these symbols: a man standing on a ram, affectionately holding a young fellow with one hand and a knife in the other, must be Abraham who, like God, was willing to sacrifice his only son. Yet the manner in which both father and son gaze earnestly upwards conveys a depth of pathos that is more than just symbolic, and contrasts with the impassive visages of the other figures.
When Lorenzo Ghiberti first addresses this same story in the quatrefoil panel of 1401, he is still dealing with symbols, albeit more readable ones. The four elements (Abraham, Isaac, ram, knife) of the Chartres jamb figure have expanded to ten (with the addition of two servants, donkey, angel, mountain, altar). Compressed and arranged in a somewhat symmetrical composition—while also with a depth of relief that brings them into our own space—these symbols expand on the narrative. The Abraham/Isaac story begins to unfold in more than just symbols, especially with Abraham’s right hand so tenaciously pointing the knife at a cowering Isaac. The brutality of this story vividly unfolds before us in a very constricted space. Ghiberti’s awesomely compressed panel challenges anyone to come up with a better way of depicting this seminal story.
Clearly having challenged himself, Ghiberti’s next set of door panels involve a fresh set of visualizations, contextualizing each drama within credible spaces. If the earlier version seems like taking the various squares of a Rubik’s Cube and solving the puzzle by the perfect placement of each of the story’s elements, the Gates of Paradise have arranged them all on a single stage—a mise-en-scène or formal tableau into which viewers are invited to enter. It’s a radical moment in the history of European art.
Ghiberti has expanded Isaac’s role in the story by showing us his origins and the roles of both Abraham (being a good host [Genesis 18:4–8]) and Sarah (laughing in the doorway [Genesis 18:10–12]) even before their son was born. The servants are just hanging out, waiting around, as is the donkey; but if they are just ‘lads’ (as is Isaac [v.12]), might they be concerned about what’s happening somewhere out of their sight?
Abraham, Isaac, the very aggressive angel, and the ram are depicted in much lower relief, setting them somewhat apart. Yet, the splendid trees suggest that this actually might have happened somewhere in the hills around Florence. The event strikes home because we are no longer simply looking at symbols. We have ourselves become participants in one of the Bible’s greatest dramas.