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Sunday, 18 March 2018

Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story - Abraham and Isaac

‘Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story’ is a free resource to help people explore the Christian faith, using paintings and Biblical story as the starting points. It’s been created by St Martin-in-the-Fields in partnership with the National Gallery.

Here is the latest reflection that I have prepared for the series:

Text: Genesis 22:1-12
Image: ‘Abraham and Isaac’ Johann Heinrich Ferdinand Olivier, 1817, NG6541
Location: National Gallery, Gallery D


Johann Heinrich Ferdinand Olivier was born in Dessau where he received his first artistic training. In 1804 he moved to Dresden where he became acquainted with the painters Philipp Otto Runge and Caspar David Friedrich. Friedrich combined landscape motifs with religious symbolism, and pictures like his ‘Winter Landscape’ in the National Gallery represent the hope for salvation through the Christian faith.

From 1807 to 1810 Olivier was in Paris, and in 1811 he settled in Vienna. In 1817 he became a member of the Brotherhood of Saint Luke, an artistic brotherhood (later known as the Nazarenes) founded in Vienna in 1809 by Friedrich Overbeck and Franz Pforr. The Brotherhood was committed to regenerating German religious art in imitation of the works of Durer, Perugino and Raphael. Olivier shared the Nazarenes' enthusiasm for northern medieval and Renaissance art and their interest in the revival of religious painting. The Nazarenes were particularly admired by the Pre-Raphaelites.

In this painting, Abraham and his son Isaac make their way to the place of sacrifice as recounted in the Old Testament (Genesis 22: 1-19). Isaac carries wood for the altar fire and Abraham holds a lighted torch. They appear to be focused primarily on their journey and don’t appear to be involved in debate or argument about the coming sacrifice.

The style of the painting is deliberately archaic, with precise outlines and odd disparities in scale, while the figures of Abraham and Isaac recall the simplified forms of a medieval woodcut. The landscape background is drawn with meticulous care. It is loosely based on Olivier's studies of the countryside around Salzburg, which he first visited in 1815. The distant mountain peak may perhaps be identified as the Watzmann, to the south of the city.

The story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac is not an easy one to handle for a lot of people. There appears to be a lot that is wrong, even barbaric, about the tale. How can a man, elsewhere called a hero of the faith, be prepared to kill his child? And how can a God, whom we talk about as loving, ask anyone to do that? What kind of God would ask Abraham to kill his own son as a sacrifice? Should blind loyalty to God lead us to commit evil, inhuman acts? It is a story that seems like an easy target for people who say that religions cause violence and conflict.

The key to understanding this story is the realisation that child sacrifice was the norm in the religions of the day and that the reason Abraham obeys God so unquestioningly may have been because, horrific and distasteful as it seems to us, there was nothing at that time unusual about the idea that the gods required human sacrifices in order to be appeased. It may be that we see this imaged in the calmness and willingness with which Abraham and Isaac ascend the mountain to the place of sacrifice.

The stories in Genesis about Abraham are foundational stories for the People of Israel. Imagine for a moment that you want to create a foundational story for a group of people that will change their understanding of sacrifice from the understanding with which they have grown up to one which is completely different from the religious practices of all the people that surround them. What kind of story might you tell? It may be that you would tell a story in which the person founding this new nation is taken all the way to the brink of child sacrifice and then dramatically and suddenly pulled back from taking that step.

The legacy of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, the philosopher and anthropologist René Girard has suggested, is that Israel developed a system of animal sacrifice that continued until shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus’ crucifixion, Girard suggests, was both about God identifying himself with all the victims – the scapegoats – who have been sacrificed down through the centuries and also, because in Jesus God himself was scapegoated and sacrificed, the ultimate demonstration of the reality that, as Hosea first stated and Jesus then repeated, God requires mercy, not sacrifice.

In Jewish tradition the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is where Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac is said to have taken place. At our partner church of St Stephen Walbrook there is a visible reminder of this in the central Henry Moore altar. By carving a round altar table with forms cut into the circular sides, Moore suggested that the centre of the church reflected the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem commemorating the sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac as a prefiguring of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross and the place for the offering of the Eucharist at the heart of Christian worship. In the Eucharist we remember and re-enact these stories of the sacrifice of Isaac and of Jesus because we need to remember and act on the realisation that God desires mercy, not scapegoats or sacrifice.

Prayer: Grieving God, in your son you experienced the agony of the pointless, savage, premature end of life. Hold the hand of those whose loved ones have become scapegoats; calm the fears of all whose identity makes them subject to the perverse hatred and grotesque violence of others; and hasten a world where all are celebrated for who they are as your children, where difference is a sign of your diverse abundance. Through the wounded yet ascended Christ, your personification of solidarity and embodiment of hope. Amen.


The Call - Scene Beyond Dreams.

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