caravaggio, chagall e isaque

Posted in Uncategorized by on 04/09/2009

caravaggio, chagall and the sacrifice of isaac

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
– Bíblia, livro de Gênesis, cap. 22, v. 1-2

With the above verses, begins the narrative of how God tested the faith of Hebrew patriarch Abraham (see below the remainder of the text). In Genesis chapter 12, God makes a covenant with Abraham, chosen to be the father of a great people, destined to bless all nations of the earth. Abraham leaves Ur, in Babylon, and heads with his family towards Canaan, the Lord’s promised land. Despite the old age of both Abraham and his wife Sarah, God repeats, in chapter 15, the promise to give Abraham as many descendants as the stars in heaven. Full of doubts and fighting against time, Abraham and Sarah try to find a solution on their own, namely, Ishmael, the son born to Abraham through Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant. But God reassures them of the promise that Sarah herself was to conceive and, finally, in chapter 21, after all uncertainty and difficulty, she gives birth to Isaac, the promised son. It is then, in that dramatic context, that God decides to put Abraham’s faith to the test.

The story of Isaac’s sacrifice has inspired countless works of art throughout the centuries. Our intention here is to analyze how Caravaggio and Chagall, two painters belonging to different centuries and artistic schools – two men with different characters, questions and pursuits – perceived and visually represented the same biblical text. The Genesis’ narrative is already quite dramatic in and of itself, and the paintings that we want to look upon may widen our possibilities of appreciation and comprehension of the story.


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1603

Caravaggio (1571 – 1610), great artist from the Italian baroque, represents the text in a realistic tone and using theatrical light, hallmarks of his pictorial style. His characters are endowed with intense body expressiveness. Caravaggio captures the scene as in a photograph, almost in documentary fashion, to the point of moving us to participate in the painting, which is like a door that invites us to come in and share in the plight of Abraham and Isaac. We can feel the terror of the son about to be sacrificed by the resolute father, and we almost hear the angel’s voice crying out to Abraham not to carry out his plan, pointing to the lamb that appears near Isaac, sent by God to be the actual sacrifice. Caravaggio magnifies the scene, as with a lens, taking us to a personal environment, where we are carried into the most delicate moment of the Genesis narrative, into Abraham’s very solitude. He uses his sophisticated portrait technique, with brownish and earthly tones, in order to take us close to the event, which becomes almost real life.

Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac, 1603, oil on canvas, 104 x 135 cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

There are resolute movements in the gestures of each character, we almost hear what they say, know what they think and feel the coolness of the woods. Caravaggio flawlessly turns us into participants of the biblical narrative, inviting us into the story. The humanity of his characters strikes us – there is no difference in the way he represents Abraham, Isaac and the angel – of whom one would expect a more divine representation. It is noteworthy that, in order to represent God’s voice speaking to Abraham, Caravaggio paints the angel right beside the patriarch, whose skin is even wrinkled by the divine messenger grabbing his arm – detail which does not even appear in the text. Isaac, as portrayed by the artist, screams, protests and feels afraid. We must remember that Caravaggio was at the service of the Catholic Church, which, by that time, invested in a kind of art that would surprise people by its strong sense of reality and bring back those who might be confused by the new proposals of the Protestant Reformation.


Marc Chagall, 1966

The painting by Chagall (1887-1985) – a Russian artist of Jewish origin gifted with a pure and childlike drawing style – takes us into a more spiritual dimension of the text. He doesn’t paint only one scene, but the many dimensions of the narrative. Using simple forms and primary colors, Chagall paints with striking symbolic sophistication. His painting looks more like a dream, or simply imagination, rather than a real event. It is something experienced by the soul. On the foreground, with greater sharpness and luminosity, Chagall portrays the main event, almost an illustration of the story. The peculiarity of his work is in the surrounding images – Jesus’ crucifixion and several other characters – which allude to the broader meaning of the text. The movement in the painting is cyclical and musical, as if leading us into the narrative’s many steps in a smooth and rhythmic way. Chagall is also concerned about other details in the text, such as the lamb by the side of the tree, sent by God to be sacrificed in Isaac’s place, and the firewood that he had “set in order” (v. 9) under his son’s passive body. Every small corner of the screen is rich in meaning and presents several possibilities of interpretation. We are left with the impression that the artist has been touched by the message of the biblical text and therefore wants to represent it in the most complete way.

Marc Chagall, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1960-1966, oil on canvas, 230 x 235 cm, Musée national Message Biblique Marc Chagall, Nice, France

Chagall did not fit in any artistic movement of his time. He was influenced by different pictorial styles, such as cubism and surrealism, but ended up developing a work that was extremely personal and emotionally rich. In his painting, Chagall portrays a son as obedient as his own father, who was executing an order from God. A dramatic theme, an intriguing narrative, a painting rich in beauty. By the side of the tree we can see a woman – could it be that Chagall painted Sarah’s pain on the face of the imminent death of her only child? The dynamic and restless sky portrays the audible voice of a God who is present, who recognizes the faithfulness of his servant and blesses him. Through his spontaneous and apparently naive painting, the artist invites us not merely to contemplate or participate in the scene, but to share in an experience of the heart.


Two complementary readings of Scripture

We can say, in a way, that Caravaggio illustrates and Chagall interprets the biblical passage. Caravaggio carries us back into the original context of the narrative. His relatively more objective and rational interpretation of the text attempts to be faithful to the author’s intention and brings us closer to the reality lived by the main characters. Chagall takes a different approach altogether: he is impacted by the text more personally and subjectively, applying it to his own life and portraying, rather than the characters’ experience, his own emotional reaction to the story. The different approaches taken by the two artists actually correspond to two complementary ways of reading the Bible. One of the basic rules of biblical interpretation is to seek to understand the circumstances in which the text was written, in order to find out the original meaning intended by the author in that specific cultural and historical background. But it’s not enough to understand the text rationally. We must bring it to our personal reality and let the biblical truth actually make a difference in the way we live. Both painters help us to live the biblical narrative in a way that is more profound and full of beauty. When we approach Abraham’s plight with our minds and hearts, we recognize ourselves and learn about a God who challenges us, loves us, expects from us obedience and who is present in our anguish.

– Rosana Faria Basile Pinto
August, 2009

(English translation: Renato Fontes)


How does the story end?

Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac (detail), 1603, oil on canvas, 104 x 135 cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy The next morning, Abraham woke up and saddled up his donkey, taking his son Isaac and two servants along for the journey. Right after chopping up some firewood for the burnt offering, he departed towards the God-appointed place. On the third day of the journey, Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar. Then he told his servants: “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go up there. After we worship, we will be back”. He took the firewood for the burnt offering and put it on the shoulders of his son, but he himself carried the coals and the knife. While the two of them were walking together, Isaac said to his father: “My father!” “Yes, my son”, answered Abraham. Isaac then asked: “The coal and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham answered: “God himself shall provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son”. And both kept walking together. When they reached the place God had appointed, Abraham built an altar and put the firewood on it. Then he tied Isaac and put him upon the altar, over the wood, and reached out his hand to grab the knife and finally sacrifice his son. But the Angel of the Lord called him from above: “Abraham, Abraham!” “Here I am”, he answered. “Do not touch the boy”, said the Angel. “Do him no harm. Now I know that you fear God, because you did not deny your son, your only son.” Marc Chagall, The Sacrifice of Isaac (detail), 1960-1966, oil on canvas, 230 x 235 cm, Musée national Message Biblique Marc Chagall, Nice, FranceAbraham lifted up his eyes and saw a lamb, tied by the horns to a bush. He then went towards the animal, sacrificing it as a burnt offering instead of his son. Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide – therefore it is said to this day: on the Mount the Lord will provide”. Again the Angel of the Lord called Abraham from heaven and said: “I swear by myself”, says the Lord, “that, because you did what you did, not denying your son, your only son, rest assured that I will bless you and make your descendants as plentiful as the stars in the sky and the sand on the shore. Your descendants shall conquer the cities of their enemies and, through it, all the peoples of the earth shall be blessed, because you did obey me”.

– Genesis, chap. 22, v. 3-18


Other representations of the same text

Many other artists, inspired by Abraham’s example of faith, aesthetically portrayed the narrative of Genesis 22. Below you can see three of the many other examples that we may find:


Rembrandt, "The Sacrifice of Abraham", 1635

Rembrandt van Rijn: ‘The Sacrifice of Abraham’, 1635


Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (detail of the Sacrifice of Isaac)

Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, 359 AD


Frans Francken II (1581-1642): 'Landscape with Abraham's Offering'

Frans Francken II (1581-1642): ‘Landscape with Abraham’s Offering’



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  1. tiago vianna said, on 25/10/2009 at 22:09

    amei os comentários rosana… quem me apresentou o site de vcs foi o renato fontes… obrigado mesmo pela iniciativa de vcs!
    já estão nos meus favoritos!!!
    tiago vianna

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