In Florence for a day, I found myself in the Bargello staring not at the glorious statuary the museum is famous for, but at two small panels, which served as competition entries by Ghiberti and Brunellschi for the 1401 competition for one set of doors of the Baptistery opposite the Duomo. Both portray the Sacrifice of Isaac. They stunned me with their similarity, and how far their mood is from how I think about that story. In the place of awful silence, into which we can project the horror of a journey to this moment of the worst of all sacrifices, we see here now conviction and certainty.
This was one of the great architectural competitions of the Renaissance, marked by a dramatic conclusion in which the jury could not decide the winner and asked the artists to work together, to which Brunelleschi’s fled to Rome in prideful disgust.
The Ghiberti seems to me clearly the more powerful of the two – the rippling of the rock of Mt. Moriah lends dramatic energy to the climatic moment of the story, when Abraham is about to kill Isaac. The Brunelleschi is much more But they have largely the same interpretation of the climax of the story. In both panels, Abraham holds the knife to Isaac, with fury and conviction, ready and seemingly willing to do his duty. Isaac, in both panels, looks beyond his father to the angel, his savior.
There are, of course, important differences. In the Brunelleschi the angel has its hand on Abraham’s arm in the act of stopping the murder; the Ghiberti takes place a few seconds earlier, just before the angel intervenes. Brunelleschi’s Abraham has his hand to Isaac’s head, but looks at the angel who is grasping his forearm; Ghiberti’s looks right at Isaac, knife up high aiming for the throat.
Brunelleschi, Sacrifice of Isaac (1401)
Ghiberti, Sacrifice of Isaac (1401)
A few hundred yards away, and two centuries, is another famous portrayal of this event, with a wholly different sense. This is no Kierkegaardian painting, where Abraham is a “knight of true faith,” where Abraham is instantly accepting of his duty, where Isaac is silent and willing, and where there is no protest, but that of the angel.
Caravaggio’s Isaac -- who looks remarkably like the figure of St. John the Baptist in another Caravaggio – peers out at the viewer from the bottom right of the painting, the strong left hand of his father on his face, and the knife inches away. But Abraham is looking away, at the angel, who grabs his arm. It takes all of the angel’s strength to hold him back. The angel is pointing, not to Abraham and not to Isaac, but beyond. What is out there? Sarah, who will, along with Isaac, not speak with Abraham again, who will die not long after. The people of Israel, who will forever be haunted by this act and this story, debating it every year on Rosh Hashanah, the holiday marking the birth of the world and the start of a new year. The angel seems to say, you cannot do this to your future. The madness ends now.
Abraham’s arm and hand around the knife remain flexed and tense. But his head is turned to the angel. What is that look in those eyes? It is beyond anger, beyond sadness. It is the ultimate in resignation. “You think you are now saving me and you people?” he asks. “You come to me now, when I have by this almost-act certainly lost my son, and my wife, and my people?” The brow is furrowed with the ripples of the centuries of anguish over this story.