AbrahamWelcomingAngels etching

Abraham Entertaining the Angels (1656) Rembrandt van Rijn – Etching and Drypoint on Japanese paper

AbrahamWelcomingAngels

Rembrandt Entertaining the Angels (1646) by Rembrandt van Rijn – Oil on Panel

Divine Encounter by Rembrandt
The Frick Collection: 1 East 70th Street, New York, NY (frick.org)
Until August 20, 2017

‘Divine Encounter’ is a brilliant exhibition concentrating on one rarely seen Rembrandt painting from a private collection, “Abraham Entertaining the Angels” (1646). It is accompanied by 8 etchings and drawings and one original copper plate. This extraordinary exhibition documents the examination by Rembrandt over 21 years of what it means to encounter and react to the Divine.

The subject of the featured 1646 painting is the appearance of three men to Abraham as he is recovering from his circumcision (Genesis 18:1). This painting is skillfully contrasted with a 1656 etching that takes a radically different view of the same subject, notably the inclusion of Ishmael in the center of the scene.
Additionally presented is Rembrandt’s 1655 etching of the “Sacrifice of Isaac”; the ultimate consequence of this sequence of events of Abraham’s encounter with God.

Further elaboration on Abraham’s character and narrative are images of a pensive Abraham tenderly caressing Isaac as a child, Abraham explaining to Isaac (who holds the sacrificial wood) that “God will supply the lamb…” Also here is Abraham casting out Hagar and Ishmael from the family home in an attempt to establish Isaac as the rightful heir to Abraham’s blessings. Finally we have the brutal image of Abraham seen from the back, about to slaughter Isaac with his hand covering his son’s mouth.

Additionally, there are two unusual drawings depicting God the Father escorted by angels; especially remarkable in light of the fact that the Calvinism practiced in Rembrandt’s Holland prohibited any depiction of the Divine!

This Calvinist prohibition establishes an underlying tension to a number of these images, lending an antinomian tinge to Rembrandt’s image making. This only grows as we learn from the wall texts and excellent catalogue by curator Joanna Sheers Seidenstein that the principle angelic characters are not necessarily what they seem.

“Abraham Entertaining the Angels” depicts three seated winged figures being served by Abraham kneeling on one knee with Sarah standing in the doorway just behind him. The scene is sharply focused on the central angelic figure, wings fully extended, who glows with a supernal light. The “angel’s” youthful face, pure white robes and long blond hair differ from his companions and seems to express the Calvinist interpretation that these travelers were actually two angels and God Himself (or according to some early Christian writers, the Son of God before the Incarnation).

This interpretation is in sharp contrast with the Talmud (Bava Metzia 86a) that maintains that while God was visiting the recovering Abraham, three angels disguised as men appeared. Abraham broke off his visit with God to welcome the strangers and offer them food, drink and shelter. Clearly the Jewish understanding of the text focused on the desire to do mitzvoth above all other concerns, even conversing with God.

In a paradoxical detail, the central divine figure who is speaking and gesturing towards Abraham has extended his bare foot toward the patriarch. This is both a direct reference to the simple biblical text, “let some water be brought, please, and wash your feet…” as well as an explicit reference to the New Testament episode in which Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.

This exhibition calls attention to the enormous creativity and independence with which Rembrandt approaches the biblical narrative. In the Sacrifice of Isaac etching he doesn’t hesitate to simplify the scene, omitting both the wood for sacrificial fire and the actual binding of Isaac’s limbs; instead focusing on a evocative repetition of hands: Abraham’s hands covers Isaac’s face and grasp the knife of slaughter as well as the angel’s hands that embrace the patriarch and effectively halt the act. This is a visual narrative of faith embodied in action.

With equal assurance Rembrandt adds non-textual figures as an exegetical tool. In the previously mentioned etching “Entertaining the Angels” the figure of Ishmael appears leaning over a wall about to shoot an arrow. His narrative importance is immediately clear since his violent nature makes him inherently unsuitable as a righteous heir to Abraham. The angelic announcement of 90 year old Sarah’s miraculous pregnancy is thereby given an appropriate introduction. Ishmael is the problem the angels have come to solve.

In a similar invention, Rembrandt introduces a diminutive Isaac lurking inside the family home as Abraham orders Hagar and Ishmael to leave and go into exile. Isaac’s visual (but non-textual) role is to alert the viewer of exactly how close the boys were, thereby emphasizing the danger that Ishmael’s influence actually posed.

Rembrandt’s artistic and interpretive methodology allowed him to utilize the Abraham narratives in a meaningful exploration of the complexities of Divine encounters and consequences.

Upon reflection it is likely that Rembrandt fully intended the Calvinist interpretations as seen in these images. However the contemporary viewer is not bound by them and can still reap rich non-sectarian insights into the biblical text through Rembrandt’s inventive images.

So in the end who wins: the artist’s very probable intent; or the contemporary viewer’s interpretation? Certainly both!

Richard McBee
August 8, 2017