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A Spirituality of Feasting

Comparative Commentary
Commentary by
Aaron Rosen

God repeatedly promises Abraham that his descendants will be innumerable, like the stars of the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore (Genesis 15:5; 22:17). The same might be said of Abraham’s artistic legacy. Depictions of even just a single episode of his life, the visit by the angels, are almost too numerous to count. Within Christian tradition, we might mention such masterpieces as the late antique mosaics at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and at San Vitale, Ravenna; medieval manuscripts such as the Vehap’ar Gospels and the Psalter of St Louis; Ghiberti’s Renaissance reliefs; and Baroque paintings by Carracci, Murillo, Rembrandt, and Tiepolo. While there are fewer Jewish images, there is an intriguing example in the influential Amsterdam Haggadah of 1695, illustrated by Abraham ben Jacob. The scene is highly unusual for a haggadah, which might be explained by the background of the artist, a Christian pastor who converted to Judaism. Examples of Abraham’s angelic visitation—mentioned four times in the Qur’an—can also be found in Islamic art, such as the early fourteenth-century Jami al-Tawarikh (‘Universal History’) composed by Rashid al-Din, a convert from Judaism to Islam. It seems fitting that a story about welcoming strangers has produced an abundance of overlapping and intersecting images, not easily confined within a single religious, cultural, or artistic context.

The works of Andrey Rublyov, Marc Chagall, and Roger Wagner provide a snapshot of this diversity. Together, they compel us to think through the experience of Abrahamic hospitality from multiple vantage points. We are, by turns, host, guest, and observer. Each of these roles attunes us to different questions and responsibilities. There is one question in particular that often gets lost in theological inquiries: what is the place of enjoyment in hospitality? Chagall’s image is the most straightforwardly celebratory. The angels in his canvas eagerly tuck into their food and drink, gesturing heartily as if guffawing at a joke. Indeed, laughter is at the core of the biblical narrative. Sarah’s snigger at the angels’ news that she will give birth anticipates her son’s name: Isaac (Hebrew: ‘he laughed’). As the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) insightfully adds, Isaac is not only born of laughter, he is ‘the one who comes to make them laugh’, to lighten Sarah and Abraham’s old age. Laughter is a genuine, joyful response to the befuddling revelations which an encounter with the Divine might bring. Sarah is fittingly resplendent, as if her body has already responded to the good, literally in-credible news brought by the angels.           

There might not be laughter in Rublyov, but there is a sublime comfort which comes from contemplating this icon. Its nearly life-size dimensions and the almost circular arrangement of the angels’ bodies seem to enfold and protect the viewer. We might be in the position of Abraham, but it is the angels who seem to offer the greatest hospitality, as if inviting us to shelter under their gilded wings. Wagner’s canvases, to be sure, have foreboding elements, but that hardly means there is no joy in what the artist playfully calls Abraham’s ‘picnic’. In his painting from 2002, there is a humble camaraderie between the patriarch and his visitors, who all sit cross-legged on the carpet. Having come from the white-hot desert beyond, we can sense the angels’ relief as they drink in the dappled shade from the tent and oak tree. For all their differences, Rublyov’s, Chagall’s, and Wagner’s paintings each speak to the joys of hospitality, for host as well as guest. And, at a fundamental level, from the serene gold of Rublyov to the rich red of Chagall and the tranquil blue of Wagner, all three painters provide a feast for the eyes.

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906–95) insists that true hospitality demands that we recognize an infinite and asymmetrical responsibility to others. We are not called simply to treat the Other as we would want to be treated, he says, but to ‘take up a position in being such that the Other counts more than myself’. The artists we have looked at do not undermine this message, but they do provide an important counterbalance. They remind us of what theologian David Ford calls the ‘spirituality of feasting’, the potential to luxuriate in the presence of both the Other and the Divine—or indeed the Divine within the Other. Joy and obligation can co-exist. Art encourages us to paint a vibrant picture of hospitality for ourselves, attuned to the pleasures which bind us together.