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 is illustrated in the first two pictures on the right and 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) and in the literature. In the Mirror of Salvation, for example, "Isaac, the son of Abraham, prefigured Jesus Christ bearing his cross. Isaac bore on his little shoulders the wood his father intended to use to sacrifice him to the Lord. Likewise Christ bears on his shoulders a cross from which his enemies wish to suspend him." (Labriola, 60).

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: 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 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-09-16, 2016-11-17.

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


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


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

MORE IMAGES

  • Early 12th century: A rare visualization of Jesus' metaphor of the "bosom of Abraham" in the St. Foy West Tympanum.
  • 1350s: Two 14th-century frescos of the Hospitality of Abraham in Pomposa Abbey.
  • 1385-1415: Relief sculpture of the Sacrifice of Isaac.
  • Circa 1489-1515: Panel in the ceiling at Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Venice.
  • 18th century: A painting of Abraham's bondwoman Hagar and their son Ishmael.
  • 1748: Duque Cornejo's relief of the angel's message at Mambre.
  • 1750: Gian Maria Morlaiter, statue of Abraham.
  • 1807-13: A panel on the sacrifice of Isaac on the west façade of Milan Cathedral.
  • 1875: Sculptures of the sac­ri­fices of Ab­ra­ham and three other Old Tes­ta­ment pers­on­ages flank the Cru­ci­fix­ion scene in the al­tar­piece at Notre-Dame de Mont­réal.

BIOGRAPHY

DATES

  • In his "Life of Abraham," 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.

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