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Abraham was the first patriarch of Genesis. Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews made a covenant with him and gave him the land of Canaan. Paintings on the life of Abraham centre on the character of this formidable figure.

The Meeting between Abraham and Melchizedek

Francisco Henriques. Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga – Lisbon. Ca. 1508-1511.

Abram descended from Shem, one of Noah’s sons. His father was called Terah; his brothers were Nahor and Haran. Haran died early but fathered Lot. Abram married Sarai but he had no children of her. Terah took Abram and Lot with him to leave the land of Ur of the Chaldaeans where they had lived, a region that lay in the country of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. Ur is a historical Sumerian city. It has been excavated and the remnants of its streets and temple ziggurat were found. When Terah lived in Ur it could not have been a city of Chaldaeans for these probably conquered the city much later. But the storyteller may remember it as a Chaldaean city.

Terah wanted to travel to the land of Canaan. On the way, in Haran, Terah died. God told Abram to proceed to Canaan, as Terah had wanted to do. Abram travelled to Canaan slowly and settled in the Negeb. Then Yahweh appeared to Abram and promised to give him this land of Canaan.

There was a famine in Canaan however, so Abram set off for Egypt. He presented Sarai, who was a very beautiful woman, as his sister in order not to attract jealousy. Sarai was taken up in Pharaoh’s household. But this displeased God and he sent plagues to Egypt. Pharaoh found out that the misfortunes that befell unto him were because of Sarai, so he scorned Abram and sent the group of Abram back on the road to Canaan. Abram went to between Bethel and Ai. By then Abram had grown prosperous, he had many herdsman with him as well as much cattle. Disputes broke out among the men as there was not enough in the land to accommodate both Abram’s and Lot’s flocks. Abram talked to Lot about this and the tribe split. Lot chose to go into the plains of the Jordan, which looked as green to him as the Garden of Eden, irrigated as it was everywhere. God promised once more all the land in sight to Abram and told him to travel the length and breadth of the country.

In the Jordan lay Sodom and Gomorrah and nine kings of that region fought a battle there. The King of Sodom was among the defeated and Lot, who had lived there, was captured. When Abram heard of this, he went with over three hundred men after the conquerors and beat them, recuperating Lot and his kinsmen. When Abram returned from having beaten Chedor-Laomer and his allies, the King of Sodom came to meet Abram in the valley of Shaweh, the valley of the King. Melchizedek, King of Salem, was a priest. He brought bread and wine to Abram and blessed him. Melchizedek proposed the spoils of the battle to Abram and asked him to leave the people in Melchizedek’s care. But Abram refused to take the possessions and also to give up his people. Abram took nothing, but a share was given to the men who accompanied him.

God again then spoke to Abram. Yahweh told Abram that his descendants would be exiles in a land not their own. They would be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. But God foretold that after four generations Abram’s descendants would come back to Canaan. And Yahweh repeated for the third time his covenant with Abram, ‘To your descendants I give this country, from the River of Egypt to the Great River, the River Euphrates.’

This story of Abram’s wanderings to Canaan is a story of shepherd nomads, of a small tribe of people that left Ur, passed deserts, went as far as Egypt, grew in number of men, split up when the land obviously could not support all and finally settled in Canaan, but still travelled ‘the length and breadth’ of the country. Abram’s people thus remained nomads. Abram was the first patriarch of Israel, but it was not he who took the initiative to leave Ur. It was his father Terah who started the journey. Yahweh promised the tribe all the lands between the great rivers Egypt and Euphrates. The people probably travelled continuously between these borders. The Bible tells of battles or skirmishes between the indigenous people, between the leaders of the settlements. Abram’s people moved between villages. Abram took only side in the fights between the settlements when his own people were involved. He took side then, defeated his opponents at the head of a couple of hundreds of men and was honoured by one of the local chiefs, the leader of Sodom.

This scene was painted many times. It was a scene of a meeting between kings, even though we know that the battles could have been merely local clashes between tens to a few hundreds of men that could not be called soldiers. The meeting between Abram and Melchizedek was the first peace treaty spoken of in the Biblical history. In medieval times and still later the meeting between Abram and Melchizedek was used as an example to prove that already in ancient biblical times peace treaties were signed that pleased God. One can not but draw the parallel between the king of the land Melchizedek and Abram, the king of the exiles, to the events that have ravaged parts of Israel in our present history. Now also, peace is being painstakingly negotiated between the Palestine leaders and the Israeli leaders. Peace was possible four thousand years ago between two different people; peace and allies may be made again.

The Portuguese painter Francisco Henriques (active from 1508 to 1518) made around 1510 a picture of the meeting between Abram and Melchizedek. The early sixteenth century was one of Portugal’s glorious periods of history. King Manuel I reigned from 1495 to 1521 and he was so lucky with the conquests of his seafarers and admirals that he was called ‘Manuel the Great’.

Portugal sponsored captains to explorations around the globe. Portuguese ships had reached the Indies as well as South America. It had started earlier than King Manuel, and in fact maybe by a deed of jealousy, greed and fight for power. The Order of the Templar knights was destroyed at the beginning of the fourteenth century. But a Portuguese king repented and passed much of the treasures and lands of the Templars to a new order, the Order of Christ. This organisation of knights served much the same purposes as the Templars in Portugal. They formed the core of the Portuguese armies that fought the Muslims. In 1415 a young prince of Portugal called Henry led part of a Portuguese fleet to the Moor African port of Ceuta that faced Gibraltar. Ceuta was taken by the audacity of Henry and the prince was richly rewarded by his father. He was appointed governor of the southern province of Algarve and more importantly, he became the Grandmaster of the Order of Christ. Thus he had at his disposal the enormous wealth of the order. He had also the duty to fight the Moors. He took the opportunity to launch naval discovery voyages to the African continent. He built a palace and an observatory, a Colonial and Naval Institute, all at Sagres near Cape Saint Vincent, one of the southernmost points of Europe. With his sea captains and geographers he set out to conquer the non-European world. Of course, all this was also an attempt to circumvent the Ottoman Empire that held the monopoly of the ancient trade routes over land to the spices of the Orient.

Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) sent out his ships from 1418 on. His expeditions found Madeira in 1420. The Azores were reached in 1431. In 1438 Portuguese seamen passed Cape Bojador. In 1445 they sailed past Cape Verde. Henry died in 1460 but he had founded Portugal’s fame on the seas. Portuguese captains sailed ever further. In 1475 they reached the Equator and in 1482 they were at the Congo River. Bartholomew Diaz reached Cape Good Hope in 1487. Around 1480 a Genovese called Cristoforo Colon came to the court of John II of Portugal. Colon lived in Portugal then, had even married a Portuguese woman. Bu the Portuguese king refused Colon’s proposal to sail straight to the West into the Atlantic Ocean. Colon then left Portugal to try his luck with the Spanish King and Queen Ferdinand and Isabella. In 1492 he would discover the Americas. In 1494, Pope Alexander VI divided the world in two spheres of influence at the Treaty of Tordesillas. All land discovered 350 leagues beyond the Azores belonged to Spain, all land to the East of that line belonged to Portugal. By chance, Brasil was found to lay to the East of the boundary and could thus later be claimed by Portugal.

King John II died in 1495 and Manuel I succeeded him. He reigned from 1495 to 1521. Portugal then reached its greatest triumphs on the seas. Vasco da Gama circumnavigated Africa and reached India in 1497-1498. Cabral sailed to Brasil in 1500. In 1505, Francisco d’Almeida was sent to the coast of Malabar. In 1510 the fleet of Alfonso d’Albuquerque took Goa in West-India.

Portuguese painting mirrored the success of the Portuguese kings in their wars against the Moors and in their domination of the African and Indian seas. Portuguese painting was already brilliant in the second part of the fifteenth century, but few pictures have remained. One of Portugal’s greatest painters was Nuno Gonçalves, who worked a generation earlier than Francisco Henriques. The influence of Flemish painting on Portuguese Gothic art was strong and Henriques may have been of Flemish origins. He worked in Lisbon at the court of Manuel I. He probably died in 1518 during an outbreak of the plague, together with many of his artisans.

Francisco Henriques’ picture is still in the Gothic, Flemish Primitives style. Abram and Melchizedek meet. Abram has returned from the battle with his soldiers. He is clad in armour, as a Portuguese general and not in the shepherds’ clothes as the historical Abram would have been when he ran to the fight with his kinsmen. He receives the bread and wine from the priest Melchizedek. Henriques represented the scene as if a triumphant Portuguese general or king returned from a battle against the Moors and received the Eucharist from a Catholic priest. Yet also Melchizedek was a priest of local gods and certainly not a priest of Yahweh. The skills of the painter Henriques were considerable as can be seen from this picture. He could compete with the best northern artists of Gothic. Remark the full splendid detail of the figures, all their different faces and attitudes. All gowns are depicted in the rich courtly style of Gothic. Abram’s armour is rendered with great mastery of the various patches of brightness and shadows that generate the volume of the forms. Remark the brocade and lines of the robes of Melchizedek.

The Gothic style can be recognised in the details of the picture, the static composition and in the favour of the artist for decorum. The lines of the lances held by the soldiers from a decorative effect not unlike the fine interlaced lines of the stonework of a Gothic window. Henriques painted plants in the foreground such as can be found in pictures of the ‘Adoration of the Magi’ in Flanders, such as in pictures of Van Der Goes. The landscape is mannered but it forms the background to fill the picture and it is arranged to suit the composition. Thus, the line of the mass of the heads of the soldiers goes down to the middle, to the face of Melchizedek and the landscape was necessary to have a line that went to the face of the knelt Abram. Thus the centre of the composition is in the form of a ‘V’, which brings airiness in the picture and draws attention immediately to the two main personages, Abram and Melchizedek.

This was a painting that stood on the altar of the church of San Francisco in Evora. The Portuguese armies had fought many battles against the Moors and since the 1470’s they had been successful in their wars. This picture may have been made to commemorate the victory of a battle. Henriques however transformed the meaning of the Bible scene into a Catholic religious theme so that it could be exhibited on the altar of a church, a very rare example of a Bible Old Testament scene used so prominently in a Catholic Church. However, the picture shows a king knelt before a priest and it was thus an example of the subordination of the secular powers to the church authority, a principle that of course the Catholic Church cherished.

Sarah presenting Hagar to Abraham

Adriaen van der Werff (1659-1722). Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen – Schleissheim. 1698.

Abram’s wife Sarai had remained barren. So she brought an Egyptian slave girl called Hagar to Abram and proposed to her husband to have children by Hagar. Soon Hagar conceived. But Sarai treated Hagar badly then, so Hagar fled to the desert. An angel of Yahweh found her at a spring in the desert. The angel told her to go back to her mistress but he foretold her also that she would have many descendants. The angel predicted her that her son would be a ‘wild donkey of a man’, he would be with his hand against every man and live in defiance of his kinsmen. Hagar had to call her son Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore his son.

Adriaen van der Werff (1639-1722) was an excellent painter of the later Dutch seventeenth century. Van der Werff painted in the Baroque style but he was evolving towards a style that was later called Classicism. He used scenes of classic antiquity. The austere Calvinist times of his country had given way to an opulent and settled bourgeoisie that continued the puritanism but that was now more concerned with consolidating its power and traditions than with a newly found spiritualism. Van der Werff moralised in his pictures, as was usual for painters of that period. But he liked exhibiting the wealth in silk gowns and in splendid ancient monuments. He liked brocades and golden hues and strong tones. He knew well all the style elements of art history and applied them with much intelligence. While doing this he lacked in emotion and involvement but in some pictures some of his individuality are indeed shown, as in his painting of ‘Sarah presenting Hagar to Abraham’.

Van der Werff’s picture would do well as a French picture of Classicism, even as one not from Poussin’s times but from the period of Ingres and David. The painting emphasises strong static vertical and horizontal lines. Not only are Abram, Sarah and Hagar in strict vertical attitudes but the rich draperies underscore the vertical direction. Thus we see an astonishing style in a period from which we do not expect such strictness of form. The horizontal lines of the bed and the blue cloth covering Abraham’s legs contrast directly with the verticality. This combination inspires the viewer a feeling of cold, of a frozen scene. The feeling conflicts with the obvious sensuality of the image.

Sarah presents a very erotic Hagar to Abram. Abram has already too eagerly accepted Hagar for his hand rests on her shoulder in a gesture of possession. Abram’s uplifted hand seems to refuse the gift and want to reassure Sarah, but the naked, powerful and young torso of Abram is too like Hagar’s young flesh to make the viewer believe in the refusal. Abram’s bright nakedness matches the splendid golden hues of Hagar’s belly and breasts. Above the brightness of the flesh are the faces of Abram and Sarah. These faces are old, wrinkled and withered. The moral message of van der Werff is thus very clear. Abram will possess Hagar with his body but he will stay with his old mind with Sarah. Elder men may desire, but the advance of time also leaves scars in the mind. The result of the conflict would appear afterwards, when Abram would be confronted with the dilemma to have to choose between Hagar’s son Ishmael and Sarah’s son Isaac. And Sarah would hate Hagar, for Abram accepted Hagar instead of refusing outright relation with the Egyptian slave.

We hear from the Bible text that God solves the dilemma in all magnanimity, as if again we had a God regretting his own acts. Yahweh apparently did not intervene in the gift of Sarah. But since he had a covenant with Abram he covers Abram’s weakness. Yahweh takes pity on Hagar when she has fled into the desert. He tells her to go back to Abram’s tent and to Sarah’s scorn, but he also promises her many descendants for Ishmael.

Van der Werff’s painting is very smooth, clear, strict and cold in outer appearance. The contrasting austere vertical and horizontal lines and the strong composition induce those feelings. But the theme and the figures convey passion and seduction. This conflict is Abram’s conflict. Van der Werff was not so well known as a painter, but this picture is particularly successful in its contrasting combination of style and content, a feat in Classicism that has only rarely been reached in the right balance. A painting like this fifty years earlier would have been condemned by Calvinist preachers so we cannot but reflect upon the changes in Dutch society from the beginning and middle of the seventeenth century to the end of that period and the beginning of the eighteenth century. Views on seduction and on puritanism had evolved. They would continue to evolve to a society of bourgeoisie that lived at the surface of the important issues that would rack France for instance, but barely touched the Netherlands. Van der Werff painted this picture in a period when France knew the frivolous rococo pictures of Antoine Watteau.

Abraham and the three Angels

Juan Fernández de Navarrete ‘El Mudo’ (c.1538-1579). National Gallery of Ireland – Dublin. 1576.

When Abram was ninety-nine, Yahweh appeared again to Abram and repeated his covenant. God said that his name would henceforth be Abraham and Sarai should be Sarah. God pledged to a covenant with Abraham’s descendants for all generations. He again gave the land of Canaan to Abraham. He blessed Ishmael, but told Abraham that Sarah would bear a child although she was in old age and this son Isaac would father the further descendants of the covenant. As a sign of that covenant, all males had to be circumcised. In a double story in the Bible, the Book of Genesis tells that Yahweh appeared to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre. While Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent, three men suddenly stood next to him. He gave the men bread and pieces of a calf to eat, curd and milk to drink. One of Abraham’s guests said that he would come back in a year and then Sarah would have a son.

Juan Fernández de Navarrete called ‘El Mudo’ made a picture of the scene of Abraham and the three angels. In the Bible, Yahweh is impersonified in the three angels and God speaks only through one angel but the story sees the three visitors as one, with one voice. So Navarrete showed the three angels identical. And the three have the traditional faces of Jesus. The angels are young men, with long brown-light hair and a fair face. The story of the Bible and Navarrete’s presentation prefigures the Trinity of the New Testament of Father, Son and Spirit. One appreciates the significance of this very old Biblical tale for the later Christian theologists, where Yahweh comes in the appearance of three angels. This picture was therefore an important illustration of one of the central dogmatic themes of the Catholic Church and Juan Fernández de Navarrete must have known the controversies on the Trinity between the Roman and Greek or Byzantine Churches that were one of the central themes of theological dispute in the first half of the sixteenth century.

Juan Fernández de Navarrete (1538-1579) was a Spanish painter. He was deaf mute. Hence his nickname of ‘El Mudo’. He was in poor health but as can be seen from this picture he was highly gifted as a painter and artist. He knew well his Bible. He painted mainly for the basilica of the Escorial in Madrid. The picture we show was made a few years before his death in Toledo in 1579. Spanish painters applied mostly a technique of dark colours in their religious paintings, and dominant browns. Navarrete was not an exception to this tenebrist style, but he brought personal contrasts in his picture. Navarrete was trained in Venice and he was later known as the Spanish Titian.

Abraham kneels before the three angels and begs them in. Abram still was a nomad shepherd who lived in a tent, but Navarrete dressed him in a golden coloured gown on which shimmers a late sun. This showed Abraham’s prosperity as told in the Bible, and his position as the first Patriarch. The silvery light shimmering on the shoulders of the angels answers the golden colour. The gold and silver lines over the ochre and greyish general colours induce a strange, ethereal emotion. Other artists of the fifteenth century used this effect of strokes of silvery white colour. One such painter was Marinus van Reymerswael who lived in the same period as Navarrete, but worked in Antwerp, very far from Spain. The fine, bright accents of light are found also on the hands of the angels and on their feet. In this painting we recognise the harsh contrasts of El Greco more than the soft tones of Titian, even though these contrasts are not in the bright blues, greens and reds of El Greco. El Greco was somewhat younger than Navarrete but he too worked in Toledo. El Greco and Navarrete must have known each other’s works. Navarrete recognised more attention for the environment than El Greco did. He painted tree and barn in full detail in this picture of Abraham and the three angels.

Navarrete had a good feeling for balance of composition. The three angels form a united area on the right, which is balanced by the barn and the figure of the eavesdropping old Sarah on the right. This is a vertical symmetry in the composition, but Navarrete also brought a horizontal balance. Here, the long horizontal lines of the kneeling Abraham match the mass of foliage of the massive tree higher on the canvas. The result is a static but colourful, harmonious picture that is calm and nice to watch and in which the painterly details such as the light on the robe of Abraham can be discovered at ease.

The central angel holds his hands in a gesture of soothing. This is also the traditional poise of the blessing Jesus. Navarrete matched the gesture of the central angel with the gesture of Abraham, who equally opens his arms and almost touches the angel’s hands in an embrace. Abraham is shown as a very old man, even though for the Patriarchs an age of ninety-nine years was not old. But Abraham’s elder appearance enforces the miracle of the pregnancy of Sarah.

Abraham received the visitors courteously. He offered them to eat and to drink. This was a theme of hospitality so that Navarrete’s picture could be hung in the guestrooms of the royal Escurial palace.

Abraham repudiating Hagar

Giovan Francesco Barbieri called Il Guercino (1591-1666). Pinacoteca di Brera – Milan. 1657.

Yahweh treated Sarah as he had told. Sarah conceived in her old age of a child that Abraham called Isaac. When the boy was eight days old Abraham circumcised his son as God had commanded.

Isaac grew and was weaned. Abraham gave a great banquet that day. When Sarah saw Isaac play with Ishmael, Abraham’s son by her Egyptian slave Hagar, she saw danger. She asked Abraham to drive away Hagar and her son so that Ishmael would not share Isaac’s inheritance. Abraham was distressed at this, but God told him to do as Sarah had asked. Yahweh promised also to make Ishmael into a great nation. Yahweh thus again in this tale takes upon him the weakness of the human Abraham. One can understand, though the Bible does not mention this, that God preferred the son of the Hebrew Sarah instead of the son of an Egyptian. The word ‘jealousy’ therefore is not mentioned in the Bible story and Sarah’s act receives an epic meaning since the race of Abraham and the wife of his tribe and family alone (since in a way Sarah was Abraham’s sister) would be the chosen people. Yahweh said that Sarah was right. But the Bible story again lends to God moral features so that he must repair the damage of injustice to Hagar and Ishmael. Even though the chosen race must be pure, Yahweh can not excuse injustice. So God promised also to make a great race out of Ishmael, but that would not be the chosen race. The race of Ishmael would be the Arabs, living in the deserts.

Francesco Barbieri called Guercino because he squinted with his right eye, was a painter of Bologna. He was born near Cento in Ferrara in 1591 but his masters were Paolo Zagnoni in Bologna and then also the Carracci brothers, mainly Ludovico Carracci. The Carracci’s had a famous workshop in Bologna as well as an academy. In 1618 Guercino travelled to Venice and met the painters of the Venetian school led by Tintoretto and Veronese. In 1621 he was called to Rome by Pope Gregorius XV but two years later already he returned to his native Cento. Guercino was most influenced by Ludovico Carracci’s ideas. Italian Mannerist and Baroque pictures were evolving through these painters in a more formal, static style that later was called Classicism. Guercino made tender and warm pictures without much apparent passion and he also made many landscape paintings in sombre tones. Landscape painting was still an exception in Italian art. Guercino died in 1666. His picture ‘Abraham repudiating Hagar’ dates from around 1657 when it was commissioned by the community of Cento as a gift to Cardinal Lorenzo Imperiali, the legate of Ferrara.

The picture is very much a realistic painting. In the style of the Carracci academy all details of the folds of the robes are splendidly drawn and appropriately coloured with shadows to denote the volumes. As to the theme, Abraham pushes Hagar away with one uplifted arm and he tells with a pointing finger to take Ishmael with her. The boy is crying, hiding near his mother. Hagar has already hanging over her shoulders her small sack with the water and the bread. Hagar’s face bears an expression of sadness. Her eyes and cheeks are reddish of tears. The white cloth she wears in her hand may have been used to wipe her eyes. Yet, she looks intently at Abraham and hears his words.

Abraham looks sternly. He is magnificently dignified, patriarchal and firm. He wears a turban like an eastern potentate, the touch of exotism added by Guercino to indicate an oriental scene. A sign of Abraham’s wealth may be the massive column behind him. This column furthermore gives the spectator an impression of solidity and dignity. Abraham will not waiver and his authority is as formidable and decided as the column.

To the left of Abraham is Sarah. She turns her back on the scene. She turns her back to Hagar and repudiates her more than Abraham. Because Abraham’s steadfastness lies entirely with Sarah. And Sarah is turning her back in hard determination against any feeling of pity that Abraham might have for his son Ishmael.

Once again Yahweh will have to redress his own necessary injustice and the weakness of Abraham. Either one believes the Bible in that God indeed intervened for Ishmael and Hagar. Or one has to admire the consistent need of the original writers of the Book of Genesis for happy endings of stories. Stories without some form of catharsis might have been too formidable to bear for the listeners or readers of Hebrew historic tales and have made the narrators unpopular. Yahweh had to intervene to make life and its miseries bearable.

Guercino shows us an uncomplicated picture. Yet in its apparent simplicity it is subtle. The artist painted the figures in clear details of their psychological roles. Sentiment is present, but not sensibility. Guercino’s composition of the scene is harmonious and balanced. Thus, Hagar’s figure finds a balance in Sarah and Abraham is torn between the two women. Guercino painted in fine colours, using thin layers of paint with a sure hand. He is concerned with the characters, not with the landscape. He shows his intelligence in the composition, in the use of the column as a decorative element but also as an element of psychology. The solemnity with which he handled the scene is in line with the Classicist orientation of the Carracci’s of Bologna. But to explain this trend we can best look at an example of an art that is completely the opposite of Guercino’s line of work.

Hagar and the Angel

Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669). The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art – Sarasota. ca.1637.

Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, gave that to Hagar, put the child on her shoulder and sent her away. Hagar wandered off into the desert of Beersheba. When all the water was gone, she abandoned the child under a bush. But she could go only a little further, then sat down, and thought that she could not bear to see the child die. Yahweh heard the boy cry and the angel of God spoke to Hagar. He said, “Do not be afraid. Pick up the boy and hold him safe for I shall make him into a great nation.” Yahweh opened Hagar’s eyes so that she saw a well. She gave the boy to drink. The boy grew up, lived in the desert of Paran, became an archer and Hagar found him an Egyptian wife G38 .

Pietro Berrettini called Pietro da Cortona because he was born in that town in 1596, mostly worked in Rome. He arrived in Rome in Rome already in 1612 and received after his apprenticeship many commissions as a decorator of the Roman churches and palaces. He had been quite some time in Rome when Guercino arrived there. From 1636 to 1639 Cortona worked on decorations in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. From 1640 to 1647 he worked in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence for the Medicis. In his last years he was an architect; he built churches in Rome and he must have known intimately the other great Roman Baroque architects of that time, Bernini and Borromini.

When you compare the picture of Guercino with da Cortona’s painting, the differences between the two conceptions are striking. That is on Guercino’s side the Classicist tendency of the Carracci brothers of Bologna and on the other side the lyrical, imposing splendour of the Roman Baroque. Guercino’s picture is clear and solemn. His image carries a moral message. Guercino chose to depict the very act of the repudiation of Hagar. In his picture the meaning is conveyed through a few figures. Guercino’s composition is simple, easily read, limpid and without unnecessary decorative elements. But for the columns, there is no background. And the column supports the drama. There is no landscape in Guercino’s painting because superfluous for the moral meaning.

Pietro da Corona’s picture is all poetry, soft feeling, a joy for the eye and the figures are a decoration by themselves. Whereas the lines in Guercino’s picture are strict and almost all vertical, Cortona is all fluidity. Guercino’s picture is about reason and psychology, about individual actions. Cortona’s is about sensuous emotions induced by the whole form to an impression of well being and of aesthetical pleasure. Cortona needed a luxurious landscape to convey feelings of aesthetical unity.

Cortona’s ‘Hagar and the Angel’ has nothing to do anymore with any religious meaning. The scene is a mythological, allegorical image. Hagar lies at her ease like a Roman Goddess and the angel resembles a Cupid. Yet, the Bible speaks of the angel as being the ‘Angel of God’, the breadth and appearance on earth of Yahweh himself. We can hardly accept God himself depicted as the ballet dancer that Cortona showed. Ishmael was added like the other sweet putti or young children. These were introduced in Rococo paintings to induce sweet emotions of tenderness in any viewer, however hard or closed his or her hearth. Cortona wished only to please the spectator’s senses. The mood of the picture is lyrical. The gestures of the figures are elegant. They do not express any narrative but are used simply to create fluid lines in the picture and to guide the viewer’s eye over the canvas. The outstretched arms of Hagar and of the angel merely connect the two figures in the composition in a gracious form.

Cortona’s composition is well balanced in the colour areas of Hagar and the angel and also the golden colours of their robes correspond nicely. The walking angel creates an impression of movement and Cortona applied a slant line in the composition since he followed the diagonal that runs from the lower left to the upper right. The picture could not be left without a beautiful landscape. The trees, bushes and their foliage were painted in detail. Cortona took his profession of decorator seriously and honoured his commissioners. This was not a rapid painting, but one that proved to be worth its money. Moreover, an impression of airiness and lightness pervades the picture.

A wide-open panorama in the middle always enhances the impression of lightness in a painting. So Cortona opened the scene centrally and in the open space between the two figures, the traditional open ‘V’, he painted a patch of happy blue sky. A few white clouds also decorate the sky without being the dangerous, dark clouds of storm. All is peace, elegance, brightness and magnificence in Cortona’s picture. Pietro da Cortona enhanced the lightness in his picture by the open wings of the angel so that the angel-child seems to dance over the ground. He intelligently accentuated the open space as created by horizontal long patches of light green-and-yellow that are interspersed by darker strokes. The bright surfaces grow more slender towards the horizon, thus creating perspective. Only an artist with a genius eye could bring such delicate and sophisticated detail in his work. The angel has the curly blond hair of a girl and so is the hair of the baby Ishmael. There is no epic feeling in ‘Hagar and the Angel’. The painting of Cortona was purely made as a decoration, made very efficiently to please only. Pietro da Cortona succeeded well in that objective.

The only detail that might link this scene to the Bible story and also to Guercino’s picture is the oriental turban draped around Hagar’s head. Much later, in the nineteenth century, Neo-classicist Auguste-Dominique Ingres would use this same element on his nude Odalisques. But where Guercino’s picture tells about a departure and a refusal, sad feelings, Cortona showed a saving and a happy encounter. One can sense in the choice of subject the difference in aims of the two artists.

Cortona’s picture contains as few figures as Guercino’s, but his figures remain expressionless. The two figures of Cortona are linked by emotions; they are not separate. They hold both arms open and this same gesture connects them in the mind of the viewer. In Guercino’s picture, the gestures of Abraham and of Hagar are in conflict. We can find nothing in Cortona’s Hagar or in the angel’s face but the sweet surprise and expectation of salvation. Hagar’s face in Guercino’s picture has a common face and lacks the elegance of Cortona’s Hagar. But such common faces often can be brought to the expression of feeling of the great actors. The great actors also seem to have a common face but when feeling needs to be conveyed, their face subtly changes and shows the emotions with a skill that seems miraculous. Guercino’s Hagar expresses in plain features surprise, sadness, detachment already and acceptance of fate, but also a silent scorn and overt disapproval. Our own moral feelings are all concentrated on a few inconspicuous traits of a face. Herein lies the greatness of Guercino. Pietro da Cortona used the simplicity and clarity of the Bolognese Classicists to bring us sensuous poetry in such a smooth, splendid way as to be impossible not to love. But he externalised the emotions in his picture and these emotions were light. The pathos or feelings became so apparent, brought to the surface as to become a decoration. With Guercino emotions remain interiorised and the painter used only very subtle means such as the look of an eye, a half-hidden face, to show only to the attentive viewer the depth of the inner drama.

The two painters used the Bible figures in a very different way to express emotions. Pietro da Cortona made simple emotions completely obvious in clear drama that is not a tragedy anymore but a catharsis. Guercino kept complex emotions under the surface but he let the viewer discover the psychology of the characters in a subtle way. Guercino was a Classicist painter, da Cortona a Baroque artist.

What was the Baroque like? Our next picture of a theme of Abraham will lead us entirely into mature Baroque art.

The Sacrifice of Isaac

Michelangelo Merisi called Il Caravaggio (1570/71-1610). – Galleria degli Uffizi – Florence. Around 1600.

One day, God put Abraham to the test. He called, “Abraham, Abraham”. God said, “take your son to the land of Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains G38 .”

The next morning Abraham saddled a donkey, took two servants and set on his way. After three days he saw the place Yahweh had indicated. Abraham left his servants behind, took Isaac and loaded the boy with wood for the offering. He carried himself the fire and the knife. Arrived at the top, Abraham arranged the wood, bound his son and put him on the altar on top of the wood. Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill Isaac.

But the angel of God right at that moment called from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham”. The angel said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy. For now I know you fear God. You have not refused your own beloved son.”

Then Abraham saw a ram caught by its horns in a bush. Abraham slaughtered the animal and offered it as a burnt offering. Then the angel of Yahweh called Abraham again. Yahweh declared that because Abraham had not hesitated to kill his beloved son, he would shower blessings on Abraham and make his descendants as numerous as the stars from heaven of the grains of sand on the seashore. God told that Abraham’s descendants would gain possession of the gates of his enemies, and all nations on earth would bless themselves by Abraham’s descendants. Abraham returned and settled in Beersheba.

Michelangelo Merisi’s ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ is a typical picture of the mature years of this artist. It is violent, powerful, very realistic, energetic, a scene of strong movement and emotions, immediate and painted undeniably by one of the greatest geniuses. What strikes our view first is of course the use of light and darkness. That is what Caravaggio is most known for and in this picture also the contrasts are very apparent. Light falls from the higher left. It illuminates the bald head of Abraham, the shoulders of the angel and then it falls on the face of the suffering Isaac. The light accentuates the main facets of the drama and thus immediately throws the meaning of the scene at our face. The light immediately gives the strong points of the action.

Abraham is merciless, almost thoughtless and surely cruel in his detachment from Isaac. Abraham could be killing a lamb without more reflection. The killing is a necessity, just as easily performed as a butcher kills to distribute meat. If Abraham had had emotions he would not have been able to murder Isaac, so emotions are not allowed.

The angel is sudden, knows the urgency of stopping the crime. The angel grasps the killing arm of Abraham and he points to the ram. Isaac is kept down.

Isaac is not subdued and consenting as might be induced from the Bible story. Isaac knows he is being slaughtered. He revolts in the act and cries out as his father is choking him. Isaac struggles in vain against the strong, pitiless arm that has thrown him on the hard offering stone. The drama is complete, rendered with great realism and with all the direct horror of a killing.

Caravaggio was always the painter of action. He was one of the first painters to seek action foremost in his pictures and he discovered or more precisely re-discovered techniques that realised energy and motion in pictures and then he brought this technique to its furthest possible expression. His main technique was to use slant lines and the diagonals of the frame. Here also, the diagonal that connects the higher left to the lower right contains the action. A slant secondary line runs from the angel to the ram but this line only follows the action line and thus emphasises it. The movement that softens the direction of the drama seems to be the pointing finger of the angel. It should indicate the ram, but the finger shows the landscape instead, the landscape beyond the main scene. This landscape is peaceful. It is the pastoral quietness and calm, the freedom of liberation for Isaac. The movement of the angel’s hand and finger shows the balance between violence and peace. By this the picture gains an additional meaning. Caravaggio rarely used landscapes in his paintings, or any other background of substance. Caravaggio was a painter who concentrated on man’s emotions and then background details were inconsequential. But here, landscape had a particular meaning.

The direction of the line from Abraham to Isaac runs downward and so goes the eye movement of the spectator. Our view starts naturally at the prominent face of Abraham, then we discover Isaac. Isaac’s head needs to be discovered for it is hidden in various lines in the right lower corner of the canvas. There is the line of the cutting arm of Abraham, the line of the upheld knife that goes in another direction and the line of the hand that holds Isaac’s head down. There is a confusion of lines around Isaac’s face. So Isaac must be sought and discovered as if Caravaggio draws the viewer into the surprise of the horror. The viewer does not want to be drawn there; we want to avoid the pain and suffering of Isaac. But Isaac’s eyes are directed at the viewer, out of the canvas straight to the spectator.

The ram’s eyes bring us back to the angel and to release of the tension. Tension however is everywhere. The act of the angel could be an act of serenity and love, but it too is full of anticipation and strength. The only calm in the picture is to be found in Abraham’s face and in the ram. Yet the ram will soon be slaughtered. Abraham’s face is wrinkled. The wrinkles are the signs of old age. There is a calm determination in Abraham and almost tender surprise in his expression when he hears the words of the angel. We find in Caravaggio’s Abraham figure the same feeling for character as in Guercino’s picture.

Caravaggio painted once more a masterpiece with this picture. It shows his formidable skills in the details of the faces and hands, depicted in all realism of youth and age. Remark the faces and hands of Abraham, the finer detail of the hair of Isaac and of the angel. The ram’s head too is magnificent, also fully concentrated on the action. Remark how Caravaggio let the light play in Abraham’s rough beard. Caravaggio used models for his pictures and the man who posed for Abraham can be found in other of his pictures. But we may interrogate ourselves on whether Caravaggio really needed models. He must have had an unwavering sure eye that only needed to catch once an image to be able to reproduce it at will.

No genius before or after Caravaggio equalled the force that is shown in this picture, nor dared to show such violence with the immediacy of such realism. Pictures should be made to please; they should be aesthetical. Caravaggio’s first aim was obviously not to please at all. He wanted to shock. He showed the cruel, dirty violence of murder with the intimacy of the cutting. This is not a painting to hang in one’s living rooms. And yet, there is so much to admire and to discover as greatness in this picture.

The ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ dates from about 1600. Caravaggio, born near Milan, was about thirty years then. He would die in 1610 on a lonely beach near Naples, from sickness but maybe also from murder. Caravaggio arrived in Rome around 1592. He learned painting in the workshop of Giuseppe Cesare d’Arpino. He soon lived in the palaces of the nobility of Rome. He received commissions for works for churches and he had made Biblical scenes such as this picture. Caravaggio was at the height of his fame and career then. The nobles of Rome and Milan admired him already. The Maecenasses who ordered pictures from him during this time were the Roman Cardinals Francesco del Monte and Mateo Contarelli and the Milanese Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, the same one who founded the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. Yet, Caravaggio could not curb his temper. He had already been detained for a short time for slander in 1603. Then in 1605 he quarrelled with a notary, had to flee to Genoa but he apologised and was allowed to return to Rome. In 1606 he would be involved in a brawl, accused of being an accomplice in manslaughter. He was forced to hide in exile. He first hid in the palace of a nobleman near Rome. Then his road of escape led to Naples and the Island of Malta.

Caravaggio had the skills and the age to bring a wonderful palette of colours. His first paintings as a young man prove his knowledge of the harmonious use of strong and also bright colours. But at his thirty years he had reduced his colours as in ‘Abraham sacrificing Isaac’. His colours darkened not unlike what Titian had done in his later years. Now he showed less tones, more balanced and softer. Caravaggio possessed of course such a great eye for the various shades of one colour that the best artist of any century could ever master. He used this mastery to overwhelm the viewer. But the details of Caravaggio’s colours are always subservient to the theme. Herein lies the greatness of the painter. Caravaggio was able to convey concepts and feelings so powerfully that his artisan skills play second role. Yet these skills were utmost realised in this artist. We may not like Caravaggio’s scenes, but we are fascinated to admiration and the artist draws us in the drama of his scene so that he possesses us more than we possess the image. We have seen several pictures of themes of the life of Abraham, each made by a different painter. Remark the evolutions from subtle elevated Classicism in Guercino to obvious display of light emotions in da Cortona and then to powerful tragedy in Caravaggio, back to cold depiction in Van Der Werff. The expression of feelings evolved over the times but traditions were remembered and taken up again to try innovations.

Abraham’s Death

Sarah died. Abraham went to the Hittites and asked them for a cave belonging to Ephron, son of Zohar in Machpelah to bury his dead. Abraham paid Ephron four hundred shekels of silver for Ephron wanted to give not only the cave but also the land on which was the cave, but Abraham refused and wanted to pay for it. The Bible story explains the transaction.

Then Abraham buried Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre – now Hebron. Later when Abraham died Isaac and Ishmael buried Abraham likewise in the cave of Machpelah, facing Mamre, in the field of Ephron the Hittite, son of Zohar.

Abraham was a hundred and seventy years old when he died. Ishmael lived in a territory stretching from Havilah-by-Shur just outside Egypt on the way to Assyria. As God had told, Ishmael held his own against all his kinsmen. As for Isaac, at that time he settled near the well of Lahai Roi.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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