Akeidat Yitzchak in Art

Overview

It is not surprising that Akeidat Yitzchak, a story replete with both religious significance and emotional turmoil is a favorite subject of many Biblical artists.  The three renderings shown here, the oil painting by Caravaggio,1 the mosaic from the Beit Alfa Synagogue2 and the work by Paolo Veronese3 all depict the climax of the story, when Avraham's sacrifice is interrupted by the angel.  The paintings evoke very different emotions in the viewer, as they differ significantly in their portrayals of each of Avraham, Yitzchak, the angel, and the ram.  The contrast between these vivid images also succeeds in raising awareness of some of the ambiguities of the Biblical text and their implications for understanding the episode.

Contrasting Images

Caravaggio

Carravagio's painting is the most graphic of the three, filled with both pathos and horror.  The thee protagonists completely fill the canvas. Avraham stands in the center, one hand grasping the knife, the other holding a clearly terrified Yitzchak by the neck.  A very human looking angel grabs onto Avraham's arm as if to restrain him, perhaps frightened that otherwise he will carry through with the deed.  Only the head of the ram makes its way into the painting. It waits by Yitzchak but its gaze is intent on Avraham.

Beit Alfa Mosaic

The Beit Alfa Mosaic is devoid of all emotion, belying the complexity of the narrative it tells.  It relays the three scenes of the story linearly, but out of chronological order. On the viewer's left the two servants hold onto the donkey.  On the right, Avraham raises a small Yitzchak onto the altar, while the arm of an angel stretches outward, the words "אל תשלח" etched underneath.  The ram is given center stage as it hangs from a tree by a rope.

Veronese

In contrast to the other artists, Veronese chooses to place the altar, here depicted as part of a bigger sanctuary, at the center of his work.  To the right, an adult Yitzchak kneels with his arms crossed, perhaps in prayer.  Avraham is grasping Yitzchak's head, but looking upward towards the angel who is attempting to wrest the knife from Avraham's hand. In the foreground, the ram is depicted peeking out through the shrubbery.  On the other side of the shrine, there is only one figure depicted.  A man stands with his donkey, facing away from the scene, seemingly unaware of the drama transpiring a mere few feet away.

Relationship to the Biblical Text

The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:

Yitzchak's Age

While the mosaic depicts Yitzchak as a young child, Caravaggio renders him as a teenager, and Veronese portrays him as a young adult.  Which is closer to the Biblical text? The episode is not dated making it impossible to know with certainty.  The opening of the chapter, "וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה" might connect it to the previous one in which Yitzchak is born and weaned, making Yitzchak a toddler or young boy.  In contrast, various Midrashim4 link the story to the death of Sarah in the next chapter, making Yitzchak thirty seven.  Ibn EzraBereshit First Commentary 22:6About R. Avraham ibn Ezra takes a middle position, suggesting that Yitzchak was a teenager.5  The ramifications of the different suggestions are significant.  Was Yitzchak an active partner in the test?  How aware was he of what was taking place?  Could he have resisted?

Witnesses to the Event

While there are no bystanders present in Caravaggio's rendering of the episode, Veronese paints a man standing with a donkey in the foreground of his work, presumably one of the two servants who accompanied Avraham.  According to the Biblical text, however, these servants did not follow Avraham all the way to the site of the sacrifice.  The choice to nonetheless include him raises an interesting issue regarding the story: Were there any witnesses to the event? This relates to the larger question of the purpose of the whole trial: was it intended for Avraham alone, or did it contain a message for the outside world as well?  See Purpose of Akeidat Yitzchak for more.

The Altar

The altar in the Beit Alfa mosaic is a fairly simple structure, sharply contrasting with the shrine painted by Veronese. The latter suggests that the site of the sacrifice had previous religious significance, and perhaps had served others as a house of worship. Is this true of Mt. Moriah?  Was there a history of sacrificial worship at the site, and perhaps even an entire sanctuary?  RambamHilkhot Beit HaBechirah 2:2About R. Moshe b. Maimon, following Chazal,6 suggests that the altar "built" by Avraham was previously utilized by Adam, Kayin and Hevel, and Noach, and thus sanctified already from time immemorial. See Choice of Yerushalayim for how this suggestion plays into different understandings of why Yerushalayim was chosen as David's capital city.

Yitzchak: A Willing Participant?

While Veronese sets Yitzchak in a submissive pose, almost as if he were in the midst of prayer, Caravaggio's Yitzchak is a mask of horror.  What was Yitzchak feeling throughout the episode? Was he a willing sacrifice, viewing the act as the ultimate show of devotion, or was he acted upon against his will?7

Binding of Isaac?

Though the story is often referred to as the "Binding of Isaac", none of these artists chose to portray Yitzchak as being bound. This omission makes one question what about the binding was deemed as so crucial to the story that it is always called "The Akeidah".  Interestingly, this is the lone appearance of the verb עקד in Tanakh,8 making the very definition of the word questionable!

"וְהִנֵּה אַיִל אַחַר נֶאֱחַז בַּסְּבַךְ"

While Veronese depicts the ram as hiding in the bramble, the Beit Alfa Mosaic has it tied to a tree, standing on its hind legs. Is there any textual support for this latter portrayal?  Might this be a rendering of the unusual phrase "אַיִל אַחַר"?‎9  More likely, though, the synagogue mosaic's depiction is influenced by Christian iconography in which the ram is meant to prefigure Jesus on the cross.10  It is therefore highlighted in the middle of the image, and depicted as hanging down from a straight tree (representing a cross) rather than being caught in the shrubs.

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