Jan Brueghel the Elder, like many artists, found in the account of Abraham and Isaac’s journey to the land of Mori′ah an opportunity to make a landscape painting, while also painting a biblical story. In the spare lines of Genesis 22, in which there are very few adjectives, a great, epic space is nevertheless evoked—a sense of height and distance. The small human figures must travel for three days across country. The mountain will gradually disclose itself to them as they draw nearer. The only significant action remarked upon throughout the duration of this long first leg of the journey is Abraham’s raising of his eyes to espy it: he ‘lifted up’ his eyes (v.4), so we imagine the mountain rising above him.
In this painting, height and distance are rendered very effectively. Vast, overarching trees dwarf the characters, and a gap in the forest opens onto misty distances that successively recede—dropping from mountainous outcrops to a wide valley floor, and then to further distant mountains. There is also an unfathomable depth to the forest’s dark interior.
This affects the way we view the figures in the landscape. Their activity is concentrated in a comparatively small space, and we are briefly tempted to imagine their passing through as inconsequential. They exchange the time of day with some woodcutters. Abraham has also cut wood (v.3), and Isaac carries it; from a distance, how different are they from these ordinary workers? Yet at the same time, we know that there is nothing inconsequential about either these people or the objects they carry. There is another ‘hugeness’ to be discerned here, alongside the hugeness of the landscape: it is the hugeness of the human-divine drama (played out in the proving of Abraham’s—and God’s—faithfulness), the hugeness of a nation’s destiny. The dramatic intensity packed into the small area of the canvas occupied by the human beings is as overwhelming as the landscape and as unfathomable as the forest’s gloom.
22 After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 2He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriʹah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. 5Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.”