Abraham Caressing Isaac by Rembrandt van Rijn

Rembrandt van Rijn

Abraham Caressing Isaac, c.1637, Etching on paper, 118 x 90 mm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; White/Boon 1969, no. 33, State i/ii, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.7238, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

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Isaac, whom you Love

Commentary by

‘After these things’ begins the passage. But what ‘things’ are encompassed here? We do not hear about how Isaac, the ‘child of laughter’, grew up, nor how the bonds with his parents developed before they were tested in this most extreme of tests. In this etching, Rembrandt goes into this gap in the text and imagines it. The Bible’s words that Isaac was the son whom Abraham ‘loved’ are rendered vivid in the physical intimacy of the two figures. Rembrandt shows us a moment full of familial affection between father and son, with a hint of terrible foreboding. The voice from heaven (which comes ‘after these things’) has not yet called out ‘Abraham!’, so here Abraham ‘takes’ his son in his hands but without rising and heading for the land of Mori’ah. He ‘binds’ him, but in an embrace. The child laughs, looking outwards from his father (not anxiously up at him) with an easy confidence that all is well. He has the prospect of fruit to bite into. God provides.

Abraham looks at us with a hint of something more wary. God has provided for him too: the fruit of a child in his and Sarah’s old age. His embrace of Isaac is linked on a diagonal axis with Isaac’s grasp of the fruit. Dare he have the same easy confidence as Isaac? While protectively harbouring Isaac between his legs, he holds the child just a little awkwardly—round the neck—and this caress introduces a dark connotation at odds with the scene’s light heartedness. The legs that protect will arise and lead the boy to the land of Mori′ah. The hand that caresses will soon hold the knife of sacrifice. The throat caressed will be the knife’s target.

God has provided. The fruit must still be tested.