BIBLE PICTURES   © Serge Ceruti and Gérard  Dufour 2008






You have chosen this picture



Abraham and the Three Angels ; Master of James IV of Scotland ; Flemish ; 1510-20; tempera colours, gold and ink on parchment; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Paul Getty trust







What you can see in this picture……

Abraham and his wife Sarah have a visit from three unknown persons; Abraham goes to meet them and offers them traditional hospitality.

Are the three visitors received by Abraham men or angels ? They are portrayed as men first, then as angels, recognizable by their wings. They are identical or have similar faces and clothes, for they are meant to represent for Christians the three divine persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

This scene has various names: “Abraham’s Hospitality” or "Abraham and the Three Angels " for painters, but in the Bible, according to the different versions, you can find : The three visitors"  (New International version),  "Three Men Visit Abraham"  (New International Reader's Version), The son of Promise" (New King James version), "A Son Is Promised to Sarah"   (New Living Translation), and also "The Lord Promises Abraham a Son"   (Contemporary English Version)...



and in other pictures

Abraham shows no distinctive characteristic except his old age.

His wife Sarah is often present in the scene of the meal but slightly apart. She listens and smiles when the guests announce that she will be a mother soon. But Sarah’s laughter can be given various representations.

The scene takes place at the foot of a big oak at Mamre (or Mambre).

The emphasis is put either on the meal served by Abraham to the three “men”, or on the meeting between the “angels” and Abraham who salutes them and bows low at their feet.


It should not be confused with


The Three Archangels with Tobias; Francesco BOTTICINI; c. 1470; tempera on wood, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Web Gallery of Art

Tobias and the three angels

Tobias is the hero of a real small novel with intersecting stories.

Tobias is the son of Tobit, a pious Jew who lives in Nineveh at the time of Exodus. The father sends the son to get a sum of money from a long-distance friend. He asks the young man to take a companion for this dangerous journey. Young Tobias meets Azariah, a youth who tells him that he knows the way and then they start on their journey together, but Azariah is none other than the archangel Raphael sent by God to protect Tobias, who is unaware of it.

Tobias is often represented walking with Raphael, but sometimes they are accompanied by the other two archangels Gabriel and Michael. Nevertheless young Tobias and Abraham cannot be confused.


Jacob’s Dream; RAPHAEL; 1518-19; fresco; Raphael’s Loggia, Vatican Palace.

 Christus Rex



Jacob’s ladder

Jacob’s Dream; RAPHAEL; 1518-19; fresco; Raphael’s Loggia, Vatican Palace.

Jacob has a dream or a vision; he sees angels go up and down a ladder while God renews his promise that he will have a long descendance.

No confusion is possible for Jacob asleep cannot be mistaken for Abraham adoring the angels ; in addition, Jacob’s angels are more numerous.

(See Jacob’s Dream)







Abraham and the Three Angels ; Master of James IV of Scotland ; Flemish ; 1510-20; tempera colours, gold and ink on parchment; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Paul Getty trust



The Book of Genesis, chapter 18      

God made a covenant with Abraham and promised him numerous offspring. But his wife Sarah, who was sterile, allowed him to have a son (called Ishmael) with Agar, her handmaid.

A few years later, Abraham received a strange visit.
And the LORD appeared to him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day;
And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground,
And said
,  : My Lord, if now I have found favour in Your sight, pass not away, I pray You, from thy servant:"

Abraham offered hospitality to his visitors. While they ate, he remained standing near them. At the end of the meal, the angel said to him: "I will certainly return to you according to the time of life; and, behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son. Sarah, who heard that, "laughed within herself, saying, ...Shall I surely bear a child, since I am old? ...And the LORD said to Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh ? Is any thing too hard for the LORD? At the time appointed I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son.
(Genesis 18:1-16)



Are these “three men” (the text constantly hesitates between the singular and the plural) God’s messengers, therefore angels, or are they God himself?
They come and see Abraham whose hospitality is famous. The narrative is twofold with, on the one hand, the visit of the “three men” and, on the other hand, the announcement that Sarah, in spite of her great age, will be pregnant soon.

The latter part is the more important since it is the fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham: «And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered.».

But Christians have insisted on the presence of “three” men in whom they have seen the image of God, one and Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost). According to St Augustine (On the Trinity II,10), «Abraham saw three men and adored one God.»










Abraham and the Three Angels ; Master of James IV of Scotland ; Flemish ; 1510-20; tempera colours, gold and ink on parchment; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Paul Getty trust


The meeting becomes a scene of adoration with some grandiloquence at the classical period


The Three Angels appearing to Abraham; Giovanni Battista TIEPOLO; 1728-29; fresco; Palazzo Patriarcale, Udino, Italy.

Web Gallery of Art


Abraham and the Angels; Sebastiano RICCI; 1694; oil on canvas; the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

 Hermitage St Petersburg



The scene of the meal is more or less intimate.


Abraham is visited by the three Angels; Petrus Comestor, “Bible historiale”; 1372; miniature; manuscript MMW, 10 B 23; Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague

Meermanno  The Hague



Abraham and the Three Angels; REMBRANDT; 1630-1640; oil on canvas, the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

 Hermitage StPetersburg



Abraham’s world is represented as that of the Turk or that of Classical Antiquity.



Abraham and the Three Angels; Gerbrandt van den EECKHOUT; 1656; oil on canvas; Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

 Hermitage StPetersburg



Abraham and the Three Angels; Gérard de LAIRESSE, c. 1680, oil on canvas; Musée du Louvre, Paris.

 In secula


Since the end of the Middle-Ages, some painters have differentiated the three visitors, the one in the centre has become God the Father. What a difference between Gelder and Chagall !


Abraham and the Angels, Aert de GELDER; oil on canvas, Boymans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam.

Olga's Gallery - Online Art Museum



Abraham and the Three Angels; Marc CHAGALL; c. 1960, oil on canvas; Musée du Message Biblique, Nice, France.




Sarah is more or less present in the scenes though the visitors have come to announce her future pregnancy. In Provost’s painting, the angel seems to speak to Sarah more than to Abraham. The composition takes the Annunciation to Mary for model, but here Sarah seems to doubt. Her “laughter” is a smile of happiness for Chagall.


Abraham, Sarah and the Angel; Jan PROVOST, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Web Gallery of Art



Sarah and the Angels; Marc CHAGALL; 1960 lithograph; Art Gallery, Chrudim.






Can God be represented?

The Jewish tradition strictly forbids any representation of God but, very soon, Christians ignored it. Since God had incarnated Himself in Christ, he could be represented as a man. But once the interdict was lifted, the image of God “no man has seen at any time” (John 1:18) was no longer a taboo and very varied representations appeared.

Souls rising towards the Trinity in Paradise; MAITRE FRANCOIS; miniature from St Augustine’s “City of God”; manuscript MMW 10 A 11, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague.

 Museum Meermanno  The Hague



A first, Christianity represented God by a hand coming out of the clouds or by an angel, then by Jesus with the features of a young man.

But in medieval pictures of the Trinity, the three persons are sometimes not differentiated.

The Trinity; miniature on vellum from a “Book of Hours” from the south of the Low Countries; manuscript MMW 10 E 3 , Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague.


or else they can be different: God the Father is imagined as a bearded old man and the Holy Ghost as a dove; only Christ keeps a proper human face. Certain artists then think it is enough to juxtapose the three representations to have an image of the Trinity. The Father and the Son are sitting with the dove between them.



The Trinity, miniature from a missal from Lombardy; manuscript MMW 10 A 16, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague.

The Holy Trinity; El GRECO; 1577; oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Web Gallery of Art



or the Father holds the crucified Son or the crucifix itself while the Dove of the Holy Spirit flies over them


Three-faced Trinity; miniature on vellum from a “Book of Hours of Delft”; manuscript KB 135 E 18, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague.

 Musée Meermanno La Haye



A single head with three faces has even been painted



The Old Testament Trinity, Andrei ROUBLEV; c. 1410; tempera on wood, the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Olga's Gallery - Online Art Museum


Nowadays, these representations seem rather shocking and this is the reason why that of Abraham’s three “men” has kept some favour, in particular in the Orthodox version as in the Trinity by Andrei Roublev, a 15th-century Russian painter.




BIBLE PICTURES   © Serge Ceruti and Gérard  Dufour 2008