Friday, April 1, 2016

The Sacrifice of Isaac, Franz Anton Maulbertsch

To Your Correspondent, it’s one of the most inexplicable passages in the Old Testament.  In order to assure himself of Abraham’s devotion, God orders him to kill his son, Isaac.  And … Abraham agrees. 

In Genesis 22, you will find the tale of how God had Abraham take Isaac up to the land of Moriah (a great distance away), separate the boy from the bearers and others that travelled with them, and then had the poor boy cut and carry wood for his own sacrifice.

Abraham readies the alter and wood, only to then bind Isaac and place him upon the pyre.  He is about to stab the boy to fulfill God’s command when God sends an angel to stop him.  God provides a ram, stuck in the nearby bushes, as a substitute, and one assumes that they went home, with Isaac never to turn his back on his father or trust him again for an instant.

It is stories like this that make Your Correspondent, a product of 13 years of private Catholic schooling, wonder if anyone reads this stuff critically.  The Biblical point here is that Abraham, after luring his son away from witnesses and making the poor boy carry the wood for his own funeral pyre, is viewed heroically because he valued God’s word more than he did the life of his own son.  The religious reading of the story puts a smiley face on an act of stupefying barbarism.  It’s an act of religious obligation counter to common sense, ethics and even fundamental morality.  This is the kind of thinking that leads to jihadism, suicide bombings, and the murder of abortion providers, much less countenancing child abuse.

We have looked at a number of brilliant depictions of this fable in the past, and to that list we must add that of Franz Anton Maulbertsch (1724-1796), currently in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary.

Looking at Maulbertsch’s work, one marvels at his ability to tell a story vertically.  For much of his work, the story sweeps up and down, rather than across.  Maulbertsch packs a great deal of drama in this picture, mostly communicated through composition and coloration.  Indeed, though Maulbertsch was a capable painter, his true genius lie in color and composition.  Weaknesses in drawing and painting are more than compensated for by his use of both to drive the narrative.  He has an artistic point of view – something that some more technically skilled painters lack, leaving their work sterile or unmoving.

The painting swoops from lower left (the angel’s wings and Isaac’s wonderfully lit legs), though the body of the boy and leading up to Abraham’s face, the light reflected on his helmet, and his upraised knife.  In that bottom to top arc, we have the entire story of the near sacrifice, told with impressive narrative thrust and significant drama.

No one would accuse Maulbertsch of delicacy when rendering the human face; indeed, many of his faces are indistinct or only adequately drawn.  Look, however, at Abraham’s face, which is very striking indeed.  Shown only in half light, this is the look of religious mania at its worst – the satisfaction evident on his face is consistent with people who have gone blood simple, and relish the act of murder.

Another reading is, of course, that Abraham’s face is lustful.  Time and again in depictions of Abraham and Isaac from artists as diverse as Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Titian, we have seen something in the myth that seems to inspire dark contemplations of parental abuse, sexual and otherwise.  All of these painters have fetishized Isaac to some degree, and Maulbertsch is no different.  Note the radiant, heavenly light specifically highlighting his muscular legs and flat stomach, focusing its spotlight on his private parts.  Discreetly covered by the torn fragments of his robe, there is no mistaking that the focal point of the painting is Isaac’s groin. Indeed, if the eye flows up in a straight line, Abraham’s knife is directly over Isaac’s genitals.

Though rendered without “fussiness” or fine detail, Maulbertsch’s take on the Abraham/Isaac myth has an almost Mannerist monumentality and epic feel.  It is not my favorite painting of the myth, but it may be one of the most idiosyncratic.

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