BIBLE PICTURES   © Serge Ceruti and Gérard  Dufour 2008






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The Sacrifice of Isaac; Andrea MANTEGNA; 1495; oil on canvas; Kunsthistorisches Museum; Vienna, Austria.

Kuntshistoriches  Museum Wien







Abraham is about to stab his son Isaac. The man’s arm is held back by God’s hand or by an angel who asks him not to kill the child.

Abraham is always a bearded old man who lifts up his knife in his right hand but his eyes are attracted by God represented by a hand or more often by an angel. The latter can also hold back the arm of Abraham who is about to kill his son.

Isaac is portrayed either as a child or an adolescent. He is standing, squatting or lying on an altar of stone or on a woodpile; he is often tied up and always held by his father’s left hand.

A sheep or a ram is more or less visible; here it is already on the altar of the sacrifice but often it is simply painted close by, sometimes with its horns caught in a bush. It is the beast that will be sacrificed in Isaac’s place.

As the name associated with the word sacrifice can designate either the one who sacrifices or the one who is sacrified, the scene is called The Sacrifice of Abraham or The Sacrifice of Isaac, the former being more frequent.


It should not be  confused with


The Sacrifice of Iphigenia; Jean Bernard RESTOUT; c. 1760 ; oil on canvas; Musée Georges de LA TOUR, Vic-sur-Seille, France.



Outside the Bible: The sacrifice of Iphigenia


The sacrifice of Isaac can be compared to that of Iphigenia, a story in Greek mythology.
The maiden must be sacrificed by her father, King Agamemnon, if he wants to obtain favourable winds to go and besiege Troy. At the last moment, the goddess Artemis replaces Iphigenia by a hind, in the same way as the God of the Bible replaces Isaac by a ram.

But there are many differences. In the Greek myth, the sacrifice has a precise object: to obtain a favourable wind, whereas, in the Bible, Abraham obeys an order from God in whom he has absolute confidence and faith.
Iphigenia is carried off through the clouds by Artemis who replaces her by the hind whereas God does not replace Isaac.
He holds back Abraham’s hand and explains to him that his son should not be sacrificed. Eventually Iphigenia becomes Artemis’ priestess at Ephesus where she is in charge of the immolation of foreigners to the goddess.





The Sacrifice of Isaac; Andrea MANTEGNA; 1495; oil on canvas; Kunsthistorisches Museum; Vienna, Austria.

Kuntshistoriches  Museum Wien



The Book of Genesis, chapter 22   

In spite of their old age, Abraham and Sarah have had a son, Isaac, the son of the Promise. The son has grown but God puts Abraham to the test. He asks him to offer his son as a sacrifice. Abraham goes with Isaac and some servants and, having arrived at the foot or the mountain God has indicated to him, father and son climb up alone with some wood for the fire of the offering.

"And they came to the place which God had told him about; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son."

 And the angel of God stops him and says:"Do not lay your hand upon the lad, neither do any thing to him: for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld thy son, your only son, from me." (Genesis 22:9-12)

And Abraham beholds a ram that he offers as a sacrifice in his son’s place.



 Abraham is the father of all believers. God has promised a numerous offspring. See Abraham and the three visitors

The birth of Isaac fulfils this promise though the order for the sacrifice seems to deny it. And Abraham, whose confidence in God is absolute, obeys. But God does not wish the death of the child; he simply wanted to try Abraham.

 If, for Jews, Abraham’s sacrifice represents the absolute submission to the will of God, Christians have seen in it the announcement or the prefiguration of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the innocent victim, the Lamb of God accepting death with submission and confidence in God.








The Sacrifice of Isaac; Andrea MANTEGNA; 1495; oil on canvas; Kunsthistorisches Museum; Vienna, Austria.

Kuntshistoriches  Museum Wien


Several positions are possible for Isaac: here he has one knee on the altar; the angel deflects Abraham’s gesture with more or less strength.


The Sacrifice of Abraham; Andrea del SARTO; 1527-28; oil on poplar panel; Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, Germany.

Web Gallery of Art


The Sacrifice of Isaac, DOMENICHINO; 1627-1628; oil on canvas; Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Web Gallery of Art


Here Isaac is tied up and lying on the altar.


Abraham ready to sacrifice his Son; Marc CHAGALL; 1960-66; watercolour; Musée national Message biblique Marc Chagall, Nice, France

Musée Chagall



The Sacrifice of Abraham; REMBRANDT; 1635; oil on canvas; the Hermitage Musuem, St Petersburg.



According to the material support, the scene takes on other forms. Tiepolo has filled in a vault; the sculptor of Chartres has moulded a sort of column.


The Sacrifice of Isaac; Giovanni TIEPOLO; 1726-29; fresco; Palazzo Patriarcale, Udino, Italy.

Web Gallery of Art



The Sacrifice of Abraham; left jamb of the central portal; Chartres cathedral, France.



There are scenes preliminary to the sacrifice: Abraham and Isaac arrive at the foot of the mountain and dismiss the servants. They have climbed to the top of the mountain and prepare the altar… Abraham binds his son’s hands. The work of the monogrammist of Brunswick is constructed like a comic strip.

The picture of the end of the Middle-Ages takes its model from an execution.


The Sacrifice of Abraham; Monogrammist of Brunswick; Flemish painting; first part of the 16th century; oil on wood; Musée du Louvre, Paris.




The Sacrifice of Isaac; Jean DREUX; c. 1450-60; miniature on vellum; manuscript MMW 10 A 21; Museum Meermanno Westreenianum, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague.



The sacrifice seen by Caravaggio, an Italian painter (1573-1610).

He takes his models among the lower classes and gives a particularly realistic dimension.


The Sacrifice of Isaac; CARAVAGGIO; 1598-1599; oil on canvas; Johnson Collection, Princeton.

Web Gallery of Art



The sacrifice of Isaac; CARAVAGGIO; 1601-02 oil on canvas; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Web Gallery of Art





The Sacrifice of Isaac; Andrea MANTEGNA; 1495; oil on canvas; Kunsthistorisches Museum; Vienna, Austria.

Kuntshistoriches  Museum Wien




The interdict of human sacrifices

This scene is one of the most famous in the Bible, for it is at the origin of one of the most important interdicts in our civilisation; that of human sacrifices.

In some antique civilisations and, in particular, in the regions of the Middle-East where Abraham lived, it was customary to offer the first-born child to the gods; that is to say to cut his throat on an altar, then to burn his body as was done with the other animals. Thus one can better understand why Abraham agreed to sacrifice Isaac without expressing any surprise. But the God of Abraham is not like those of his neighbours; he holds back his arm and asks him to offer a sheep.

The narrative, supported by the picture, is the foundation of the interdict of all human sacrifices for the “children of Abraham”, that is to say for three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This interdict has not always been respected but it has made it possible to denounce those who ignore it.


Aid el Kebir

Abraham’s sacrifice is also recognized by Muslims who still celebrate this event by sacrificing a sheep; this is Aid-el-Kebir or the great Feast of Sacrifices.


But for many Muslims, Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac but Ishmael, the son he had had before Isaac with his servant Hagar for his wife Sarah was sterile. According to the tradition, Ishmael is the ancestor of the Arabs.

In the house of the headmaster of the Pikine 3 Poteaux school in Dakar, as in each Muslim family house, the throat of the sheep is slit according to a very precise ritual : a prayer is first said after turning the beast towards Mecca, and then, with a very sharp instrument, an experienced person carries out the sacrifice. The sons watch in order to learn.





BIBLE PICTURES   © Serge Ceruti and Gérard  Dufour 2008