Abraham the Patriarch: The Iconography
GENESIS 12-25
Abraham appears in a number of common narrative types. The meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek was popular because it was said to foreshadow the Eucharist. The Melchizedek mosaic in Sant'Apollinare in Clase associates Melchizedek's sacrifice with those of Abel and Abraham, all of them being types of Christ's sacrifice, of which the Eucharist is the memorial.

Another type is the "Hospitality of Abraham" – when he was visited by three men who were taken by Christians to be God himself in the Trinity (see the page for the Trinity).

Another narrative type with Eucharistic import is the Sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham's response to God's demand that he sacrifice his son, which was taken to be a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Abraham's sacrifice provides the elements for the portrait of Abraham in the first picture at right: Isaac himself, the sword, and the fire used for the sacrifice.

Even as early as the beginning of the 3rd century, the art emphasizes the connection between Abraham's sacrifice and the remembrance of Christ's sacrifice in the liturgy (example). In medieval times it continued to be a major topic in the art (example).

Except for some of the images with Melchizedek, Abraham has a white or gray beard slightly forked at the bottom edge, which sometimes reaches as far as mid-chest.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Georgia Regents University

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Lorenzo Monaco, Abraham, circa 1408/1410 (See description page)


Detail from a 4th-century sarcophagus with the Sacrifice of Isaac (See description page)


11th-century capital in Conques, France (See description page)

DATES

  • In his translation / expansion of the Golden Legend, Caxton notes that Abraham's legend was "read in the church" on Quinquagesima Sunday (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday).

ALSO SEE

  • The 5th-century Old Testament Mosaics at Santa Maria Maggiore include panels for Melchizedek's sacrifice, Abraham and Lot, the Hospitality, and the Sacrifice of Isaac.