Yesterday we looked at how Dutch artist Jan Lievens envisioned the Biblical story of God’s edict to Abraham to murder his own son, Isaac, as a sign of his devotion. Lievens was a contemporary (and sometime studio partner) of Rembrandt van Rijn, who also painted his own version of the story. Unlike Lievens, who painted the scene after Abraham spared Isaac and killed a ram instead, Rembrandt, like Caravaggio before him, chose the more dramatic moment of the story when the angel appears and stops Abraham in his murderous intent.
Rembrandt (1606 – 1669), of course, is one of the world’s most famous and celebrated painters. His is one of the few names (like Leonardo and Michelangelo) that have become shorthand for “artist.” His revolutionary use of light and color, in addition to the sensitivity with which he portrayed the human condition, were combined with a supreme sense of composition and narrative. He is truly one of the great masters.
Rembrandt was born into a middle class family; he showed an early aptitude for art and studied first with Jacob van Swanenburgh, and later (alongside Jan Lievens) with Pieter Lastman. Lastman was deeply impressed by Caravaggio’s use of light and color, and it’s probable that Lastman held up the Italian Renaissance master as a model to his students. (Caravaggio himself painted a deeply disturbing version of the Abraham and Isaac story.)
Rembrandt became one of history’s most celebrated portrait painters. He married Saskia van Uylenburg in 1634 and her father, an art dealer, was able to secure a great deal of work for his son-in-law. The couple lived and worked in the Breestraat, a busy street on the boarder of the Jewish neighborhood. Rembrandt studied many of the faces he saw there, and this study stood him in good stead for his masterful pictures depicting Old Testament figures. Rembrandt created more than 300 Biblical works, including drawings and etchings.
Despite his success, Rembrandt was never very competent when it came to financial affairs. He lived way beyond his means, using much of his money to buy art and antiquities. He sold much of his collection to avoid bankruptcy in 1656 including Roman busts, Japanese armor and his collections of minerals and gems. The art establishment, always out to get him, represented by the painters guild actually created a rule that artists in Rembrandt’s financial position could not trade as painters. Rembrandt was forced to move into a smaller house and he died in dire financial straits.
The Angel Prevents the Sacrifice of Isaac was painted around 1635 and, as is usually the case with Rembrandt, he finds the decisive, dramatic moment of the story to illustrate with his brush.
Rembrandt was much the same age as Lievens when he painted his version of Abraham and Isaac. And though both men are great masters in their own right, I think that the Rembrandt is by far the superior picture of the two. Both artists focus on Isaac, but where Lievens pinpoints the ambiguity of the boy’s emotions, Rembrandt details his lily white youth and supple boyhood. Indeed, the bleached white of Isaac’s torso shows that the heavenly light is not on Abraham, but on Isaac.
Nor is Isaac any willing murder victim; like Caravaggio’s possible self-portrait in the same role, this is an Isaac who is clearly being abused by his father. Abraham’s hand covers the boy’s face and mouth – he cannot cry out, nor can he breathe. His hands are tied behind his back, but his body and legs twist and squirm in terror.
It is curious, too, that Rembrandt’s Isaac, like Caravaggio’s, is nude or mostly nude. This curious fetishizing of Isaac links the work of these two masters, and will also be in evidence tomorrow when we look at Titian.
Where Caravaggio paints Abraham as an emotional blank, though, Rembrandt creates a very different picture of the prophet. Here, Abraham is clearly a confused old duffer, dropping his knife in surprise at the arrival of the angel. There is no sense of purpose, as with Caravaggio, or perhaps continued malign intent, as with Lievens, but, rather, simply infirmity and, possibly, dementia. One wonders how the old man managed to subdue the boy in the first place.
Also interesting is the angel. It appears here that the angel arrives in the proverbial nick of time – and the look on its face seems to indicate more than a touch of disapproval of the entire incident. (What, it seems to ask, are you crazy…?)
I would draw your attention to the hands of both Abraham and the angel – they seem, to me, curiously deliberate. The hand smothering Isaac is quite massive, and the hand that held the knife seems quite powerful indeed – hardly the hands belonging to so old a man as Abraham. The angel’s hand clutching Abraham’s wrist also seems powerfully delineated, with dark patches between fingers, while the hand heavenward seems curiously feminine and small.
As is often the case with this story, one wonders what happens once the angel drifts heavenward. Isaac is already tied and lying on what would be his funeral pyre. The ram that will be killed in his stead is nowhere in evidence – so we have to ask, how does one move from this moment of supreme drama and religious mania back to normalcy?