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
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).
Sarcophagi reliefs of the 4th century tend to show the sacrifice scene at just the moment when God stays Abraham's hand (example). Such scenes are more consistent with the general tenor of the images on the sarcophagi, which emphasize faith, forgiveness, and salvation. The scenes are often paired with images of the same hand giving the Law to Moses, the two men placed on either side of the decedent's image (example).
Abraham and Isaac scenes are very common in the 4th century, as in the following sarcophagi:
Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University