The Binding of Isaac in Art: Piety and Protest


The article The Binding of Isaac: Piety and Protest explores this week’s Torah Portion “Vayera” in a totally new light: through the eyes of the artist. The article is one of 27 found on the TALI website Visual Midrash. The site, the first on-line fine and folk-art index of the Bible and its commentaries, was created by Dr. Jo Milgrom, Israel’s primary lecturer in “art as midrash” at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and biblical scholar, Dr. Joel Duman. The website is based on Dr. Milgrom’s archive of art images collected over a lifetime of teaching and pioneering the field of art as Biblical commentary. Over 950 catalogued images are now accessible on the Visual Midrash Web site, with essays in English and Hebrew on 28 biblical themes. Altogether, Milgrom has donated 3,000 slides from her personal collection to this project. To read more about the project and the sacrifice of Isaac, click here.


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The Binding of Isaac: Piety and Protest

Some time ago at the beginning of Jewish history an inscrutable God, without explanation, orders his favorite founder, Abraham, to sacrifice his beloved son. Without questioning, the old man hastens to the task. Aware or unaware, the son participates in the preparations. In the end God changes his mind, but the father and son do not return home together.

You can`t be neutral. Either you marvel at the man`s faith and courage or you revile his madness. In fact, many critical issues in Judaism inform this foundation tale, even prefiguring the character of its daughter religions, Christianity and Islam:

– The bewilderment/awe at being challenged by God: Is it God? Why me? How do I respond?

– Sacred geography: the internal/spiritual and external/physical journey

– Is human aggression hard-wired?

– Love and tension in the family

– The silencing of the woman

– Is there a conflict between faith and morality?

Both piety and protest emerge from these issues: the acceptance of the biblical account as normative and right, and the critique of foundational sancta. The biblical account already contains the seeds of its own deconstruction. Isaac’s question “where is the lamb?” expresses either total naivete or covert suspicion. Already in the earliest Midrashim, Isaac cries out, torn between faith and fear, imploring Abraham to bind him well lest his instinctive resistance blemish the sacrifice. As we shall see, by the Renaissance these reservations grow to outright confrontation and in modern times to rejection. We will hear both voices, read both texts, scrutinize the conflicting images .

The Earliest Significant Jewish art

Prior to the 1930`s, most scholars were convinced that ancient Jewry produced no art. As a result, the discovery in 1932 of the biblical wall-paintings decorating the third century synagogue of Dura Europos,Syria stunned the academic world. In these earliest extant examples of Jewish art (antedating comparable Christian art by two centuries) the community expresses its acceptance of pious rabbinic midrashim. Center stage above the Torah ark, a naively drawn Abraham stands firm before the altar, knife raised, his back to the viewer.

Dura Europos Synagogue, Akedah (detail), 244 C.E.

The saving ram is tethered behind Abraham awaiting its theological moment. Tiny Isaac is impaled upon a monumental altar (see the Midrash in Targum Yonatan, below). He too looks away from us, as does Sarah (rarely represented in akedah scenes) in the doorway of her tent, the highest and most distant point of the scene. They are all focused on the hand of God, “the Place from afar” at Moriah (v.3), identified in late biblical times as the site of the once and forever restored Temple of Jerusalem. 170 years after its destruction, the Temple and its implements are visually restored at the center and left of this scene, together with the akedah, the symbols of Diaspora hope for national and religious restoration. Dura Europos Synagogue, Akedah

Just three years prior to the discovery of Dura, a stunning mosaic floor of a 6th century synagogue had been uncovered at Kibbutz Bet Alpha., the earliest akedah to be found in Israel. The naive style of the mosaic displays Jewish, pagan and possibly Christian elements. On entering the synagogue, the worshiper first encountered the akedah, a focal narrative of Jewish tradition.  The worshiper next saw a zodiac, centered on the sun god Helios and his chariot. Is this a synagogue? It is likely that these pagan symbols were interpreted as representing the ritual calendar of the congregation – but, it is also evidence of a Judaism culturally alive to the imagery of the Greco-Roman Byzantine heritage. Finally, in the third section, closest to the holy ark, the worshiper saw (as in Dura) the doors, menorah and ritual tools of the restoredTemple. Left: Bet Alpha Synagogue, Entire Floor

Above right: detail, Bet Alpha Synagogue, Akedah, 6th century: The playful color patterns and paper-doll character of the figures belie the theological intensity of the akedah scene. The two servants stand at the left, together with the ass (v. 5).  At the center point, the ram hangs from a bush, rather than being caught in the thicket, as recounted in the Bible (v. 13). Above, a haloed hand of the angel “calls out”: Do not raise [your hand] (v. 11 – 12). On the right, the child Isaac is held aloft between Abraham and the burning altar (v. 10). The artists altered the sequence of the story by placing the ram at center stage. Thus the mosaic seems to focus on God’s compassionate substitution of Isaac by the ram, rather than on Abraham’s extraordinary act of faith. It has been suggested that the hanging ram is based on Christian iconography, connecting Isaac, the ram and Jesus as parallel sacrifices. But just as in the use of the pagan zodiac, the borrowing of this model does not imply a heterodox interpretation, but rather cultural contact.

The Christian Akeda

We now jump ahead several centuries, to what is loosely called “the Middle Ages” and go from the Jewish context of Bet Alpha and Dura to the Christian sphere. In this milieu too, the akedah appears frequently in the works of medieval Christian artists, who understood the near sacrifice of Isaac as a prefiguring of Jesus` crucifixion and its physical context is the Church and the Church service.Chartres Cathedral, Sacrifice of Abraham, 1194-1250

Donatello and Chartres – Suffering vs. Piety

If we were to write a legend under the Chartres akedah, it might be “And the two of them went together” (vv. 6, 8). Donatello`s portrayal of the akedah from 1418, while preserving the columnar structure of Chartres, might be asking: Did the two really go together? While in Chartres, Abraham and Isaac are harmoniously parallel, Donatello`s figures, distorted in expression and proportion, almost ugly, strain in opposite directions. Note particularly the shoulders of father and son. This akedah connotes suffering rather than piety.

A little known midrash, apparently written in 16th century Italyseems to reflect reservations similar to those of Donatello about the akedah:

At that moment [that Abraham informed him that he was the sacrifice], Isaac acquiesced with his mouth, but in his heart he said, “Who will save me from my father? I have no help other than God, as it is said `My help is from the Lord`”. Left: Donatello, Sacrifice of Abraham,c.a. 1418, Chartes, Akeda; Right: Chartes, Akeda

The View from Mecca

Islam follows in the path of Judaism and Christianity, also cherishing the figure of Abraham, as the friend of God. However, the bound son is not identified in the Koran`s account of the akedah. But by the time the first paintings of the akedah appear in Islamic art in the late Middle Ages, normative Islam had designated Ishmael as the offering.

In this 16th century Persian manuscript of the Tales of the Prophets, an invisible X intersects the landscape. A single figure occupies each quadrant. One diagonal, following the mountain, separates heaven and earth. The other, connects the heavenly pair (angel/ram) to the earthly pair Abraham/Ishmael). Ishmael enraptured crouches unbound and compliant. Abraham presses on the youth, one hand pulling his son`s hair and the other holding the knife to his own breast, as if the patriarch would sooner kill himself. Abraham is torn between love of his son and the divine command. The lines of the X meet at the juncture of heaven and earth anticipating what must or must not happen. Above: Riza-i Abbasi, Abraham’s Sacrifice, Qisas al-Anbiyya, 16th cent.

An Outcry : The Early Renaissance

Our first glance at Caravaggio’s painting focuses on the horror in Isaac’s face; this is no devout illustration of patriarchal piety, but what Phyllis Trible calls a “text of terror”. Two parallel diagonals of light lead us from the face of Isaac, to the angel, to Abraham and to the ram. Despite these physical connections, the relationships are disconnected: the angel points approximately but not directly at the ram; Abraham looks approximately but not directly at the angel; Isaac approximately faces the viewer; only the ram looks directly at Abraham and the angel while nuzzling up to Isaac. The avoidance of eye contact is Caravaggio’s way of expressing the surreal madness of the scene. Above: Caravaggio, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1601-02

Two Rembrandts

Both Caravaggio and Rembrandt are often thought of as the masters of Baroque use of light, shadow and drama. Rembrandt treated many Jewish and biblical themes, including repeatedly the akedah. Here we will examine two of these treatments, spanning 30 years of the artist’s tumultuous life.

The oil painting above, from 1635, was produced during the period of Rembrandt’s greatest popularity as a portrait artist, a popularity that diminished as the artist became less flattering and more honest in his portrayal of his subjects. The diagonal structure of the picture and the use of light are dramatic techniques that propel the viewer between two focal points: Isaac’s body and Abraham’s face.  Light on the hands of Abraham and the angel emphasizes the agitated moment. Isaac’s exposed chest radiates light and vulnerability. Abraham, in a state of paralyzed shock and sadness, is so intent on doing God’s command that the angel must call to him twice before he drops the knife (compare Caravaggio’s Abraham). Left: Rembrandt, Abraham’s Sacrifice, 1635

During the next five years of Rembrandt’s life, Saskia, his wife, gave birth to four children who died at birth; she herself died when the fifth child, Titus (who survived) was born; Rembrandt’s later akedot took on a different pathos.

In the 1655 etching, we return to the altar scene. The angel, Abraham and Isaac form a single figure in embrace; diagonal lines from the right bring divine light to Abraham’s left hand, which holds the knife. Now it is Abraham’s eyes that are black holes. The drama of 1635 has become profound pathos of 1655.  The artist is unwilling to let it happen, so he undermines the scene. On the one hand the diagonal of divine light can only mean blessing; on the other, Abraham becomes left-handed, awkwardly distancing the knife from Isaac. Kierkegaard writes “Abraham knew joy no longer”. Left: Rembrandt, Abraham`s Sacrifice, 1655

Jews and the Akedah on the Threshold of Modern Times

Up to now, we have presented artworks focused in the main on the climactic moment at the altar. In the early 20th century painting below, Moshe Mizrahi fills out the laconic biblical text with four midrashic tableaux reflecting major themes in the development of literary Midrash, within a frame of majestic columns and traditional images of Jerusalem.

In the uppermost panel, Sarah, strangely absent from the biblical narrative, is manipulated by Abraham into letting Isaac depart for “graduate” Torah studies. Above the trio is the text of their discussion, a quote from the liturgical poem עֵת שַׁעֲרֵי רָצוֹן לְהִפָּתֵחַ “when the gates of acceptance open”, sung at the climax of the Rosh Hashana service.  “But not too far,” Sarah admonishes her husband. To read the entire commentary on the Mizrahi tableaux, click here.

More on Sarah – Sarah out of the Closet

Independent of Mizrahi`s introduction of the hidden Sarah, contemporary artists are bringing Sarah out of the closet.

In 1947, Israeli artist Mordecai Ardon paints the worst scenario. Isaac lies dead at Sarah’s feet, his mother a large, grotesque weeping figure, screams the call of the shofar. Parallel and opposite the fallen Isaac, a fallen ladder of Jewish continuity conveys two dead ends: Jacob’s ladder, that will not be, and the train tracks to Auschwitz. The faceless mother and child echo the universal pieta motif, the mother holding her deceased child, whether in antiquity or in our times. M. Ardon, Sarah, 1947

Some twenty years after Ardon’s Sarah, Israeli Yizhak Frankel brings Sarah out of the house, to a startling position under the altar. Is she the ultimate sacrifice or is she the angel? Yitzhak Frankel, Akedat Yitzhak, 1960

The protest movement against the Vietnam War reached a climax in May 1970, when four student demonstrators were killed at Kent State University by the state militia. The University commissioned George Segal to create a memorial – but rejected his Akedah, having had in mind a sweet young thing placing a rose in the muzzle of a gun. Princeton University subsequently acquired this akedah, in which a brutish father directs the knife against his draft age son. Proportionately, the son is bigger than his father, but on his knees; he could rise up and overpower the older man. Such is the power of the older generation to manipulate the younger.George Segal, Sacrifice of Isaac, 1978

In an earlier (1973) Akedah, Segal already shocked his audience; a less than majestic Abraham, your neighbor in jeans, overfed and under exercised, towers above an angelic child. Is he about to leap up and flee? Embrace his father? Note that the knife is turned away at the final moment. By chance (?), Segal’s work was first exhibited immediately before the Yom Kippur war, in the summer of 1973. It seems to be a recurring national theme: in Christian art throughout Europe you see the holy family and the crucifixion; in Jewish art, both in Israel and abroad, you see the akedah. George Segal, Sacrifice of Isaac, 1973

In fact, the akedah appears to be a central obsession of Israeli artists, writers, poets and thinkers. And while the akedah used to evoke images in the Israeli imagination of self-sacrifice for the sake of national redemption, it has become, mainly since 1967, the focus of protest against the seemingly unending demands on the young. As a result, several striking transformations have taken place in treatments of the akedah: in addition to the highlighting of Sarah, as in Ardon’s painting, the ram has turned into a symbol of these insatiable demands, as in many of Menashe Kadishman`s works.

M. Kadishman, The Binding of Isaac, 1982-85

The story has within itself the seeds of its own subversion.


Dr. Jo Milgrom is a lecturer in the Judaism and the Arts M.A. program at the Schechter Institute , where she offers her unique workshop on “Handmade Midrash”. She and Joel Duman launched the Visual Midrash website in 2009.

Dr. Joel Duman is a Biblical educator at HUC Jerusalem, JTS and the Hebrew University High School.

Image: Sacrifice of Isaac-Caravaggio (Uffizi)