The Hospitality of Abraham

6th century
Mosaic
Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

This and the mosaic on the facing wall focus on sacrifices in the Old Testament that precede and are types of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Appropriately, they are on the left and right sides of the area that precedes the presbytery, where the Eucharistic liturgy offers the sacrifice of Christ to the Father.

THE MAIN LUNETTE

The lunette illustrates the Hospitality of Abraham on the left and center (Genesis 18:1-15) and the Sacrifice of Isaac on the right (Genesis 22:1-18). The juxtaposition points to the significance of the two events as types of the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Mass. The prominence of the loaves, each with an incised cross, underlines the typology. (At the time, the bread consecrated in the Eucharist was in the form of loaves offered by the faithful – see McLachlan, 350.) The typology is also referenced by the sacrificial animals – the lamb offered by Abraham on the left, the ram on the right that will be substituted for Isaac, and the lambs or sheep adorning the capitals of the columns below.

JEREMIAH AND MOSES

Above the left and right sides of the lunette are Jeremiah and Moses respectively, each labeled with his name. A beardless and youthful Moses is on a stylized mountain receiving from God a closed scroll representing his commission to lead the Israelites to freedom.

Jeremiah is similarly clothed and holds a long open scroll. It may represent the Book of Jeremiah in general, or it could refer to Jeremiah 36:2, "Take the roll of a book ["Take a scroll" in some modern translations], and thou shalt write in it all the words that I have spoken to thee against Israel and Juda." This commission to Jeremiah may have been chosen as a counterpart to Moses' commission on the right.

THE EVANGELISTS

Above the lunette and the two portraits are images of two of the evangelists, St. John on the left and St. Luke on the right. (This photo does not show them completely, but see the detail photos below.) The other two evangelists are on the facing wall.

THE LOWER RIGHT CORNER

At the lower right corner of the lunette is what could be either the Kiss of Judas or Jacob's embrace of his favored son Joseph: a young man being kissed by an old one, with eleven others standing close by. It is not clear why a Kiss of Judas should be here among the Old Testament scenes, unless it was an adumbration of the sacrifice that would occur the following day. A scene with Joseph might be more appropriate, as he is considered a type of Christ (see Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Joseph"). The corresponding scene in the lower left corner of the mosaic on the wall facing this one has Moses feeding one of his sheep with his right hand while he holds the scroll of commission in his left.

JESUS CHRIST, THE CENTER OF ALL

Jesus Christ, presented symbolically as a jeweled cross in the clipeus held by the angels, is appropriately the central visual element linking together all the portraits and episodes in this composition. He is the Lamb of God whose sacrifice contains and gives meaning to all other sacrifices, who was kissed by his betrayer, and who accepted the Father's commission to save his people.

This image in full resolution
View the mosaic on the facing wall

Detail of Jeremiah
Detail of the Hospitality of Abraham
Detail of the clipeus above the lunette, with further commentary
Detail of Moses, with further commentary
Detail of St. John the Evangelist, with further commentary
Detail of St. Luke, with further commentary

More of Abraham
More of Moses
More of St. John the Evangelist
More of St. Luke

Photographed at the basilica by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.