Primary Impressions: A Critical Comparison of Two Portrayals of The Sacrifice of Isaac

As told in the Old Testament, the story of Abraham and Isaac is founded in sacrifice:

Abraham is the first of the Hebrew patriarchs of the Old Testament. To test Abraham’s faith, God commands him to make a burnt offering of his son, Isaac. Torn between great love for his son and his desire to obey God’s command, Abraham decides that his duty to God ultimately takes precedence. He binds Isaac, lays him on the altar and draws his knife. An angel appears, grasps Abraham’s hand and says, “Now I know that you are a god-fearing man. You have not withheld from me your son.” Greatly relieved, Abraham sacrifices a ram in place of his son.1

Throughout modern history, countless artists have captured this scene in painting and sculpture; each adding their own expressive elements to capture and relate to the viewer in a new way. Abraham and Isaac of the Workshop of Rembrandt von Rijn leaves the observer with an appreciation for how powerless man is in the face of God.2 However, Sacrifice of Isaac, by Marc Chagall, imparts a sense of awe on the perceptive viewer, rather than one of fear.3 Both Rembrandt and Chagall employ several different techniques incorporating color, lines, perspective and proportion to project their own unique vision.

Rembrandt’s portrayal of the story of Abraham and Isaac is characterized by alternating light and dark values, emphasizing and de-emphasizing different areas of the painting. The scene is dominated by blackness; much of Abraham’s clothing is in a darker hue of red and intermingles in with the landscape in the background as if they are one form, flowing together. In stark contrast, Isaac is all but glowing in a saturated golden hue of yellow, drawing the eyes of the viewer toward his exposed flesh. Parallel to the opposing light and dark values, Isaac is again isolated from the rest of the piece by virtue of his consistent and definable hue. While there is a marked simplicity in Isaac’s color key, many of the hues in the painting are more intermediate blending color and void. Overall, Abraham and Isaac is warm in tone, tending toward yellow and red, with the only cool tones in the piece coming from the dark blue-greens on the garments of the angel.2

There is a great sense of movement expressed in the lines in this painting; the majority of it flowing forth from the upper left down across the scene diagonally. However, the landscape in the background slopes gently from the right to the left. Similarly, Isaac’s body lies parallel this slope, contrasting with the remainder of the foreground. These overlaying differences lend a balance to the painting by offsetting one another. Many of these lines seem to be within the actual forms of the figures, connecting each form with another. Everything in this painting is in someway chained together and linked to another portion the painting, contributing a feeling of a stratified relationship between each element in the piece. This stratified feeling progresses from the angel to Abraham and finally to the Isaac who is bound and tied, from the powerful to the vulnerable.

As far as the shape of the entire work is concerned, the painting is appreciably taller than it is broad, yet it is only as tall as it need be. Furthermore, the scale of the scene is quite small, as the arms of Abraham nearly scale the breadth of the painting, yet the focus is on the foreground and the scale serves to frame the figures in the painting, further distinguishing them from the landscape. By keeping the scale of the picture smaller, Rembrandt presents a more intimate view to the observer. This has a profound effect on the viewer’s reaction to the piece. By keeping a narrow angle, there is almost no way for the figures in the painting not to be touching each other. The viewer is left with a feeling of weakness in the face of God; there are no means of escape from his watchful eye.

The color environment for Chagall’s Sacrifice of Isaac is the epitome of simplicity, including for the most part only single hues of the primary colors.3 The painting seems to be split in half diagonally from the lower left corner to the upper right corner. All of the colors to the left of this imaginary line are cool tones, while all those to the right are warmer tones. Blues with a few isolated greens dominate the upper left half of the painting, swirling freely and flowing, unconfined to any specific form. Similarly, in the lower right half, the warmer red and yellow tones exist without a form. There is some degree of blending, yet the intermediate hues do not seem to be incredibly different from the pure hues. Red blends into yellow and yellow then blends into blue. Orange and green hues may be found in the picture, but they do not stand out. Instead they serve to help complete a cycle, one color transition to another, in a circle, through the painting.

Chagall is able to create a circular progression in Sacrifice of Isaac, not only through his use of color, but also through his use of lines.3 Beginning near the top left, swirls in the color draw the viewers eyes down to the concrete lines of the angels wings to the angels outstretched arm. From there, the viewers eyes enter a cycle of clockwise progression through the piece, following along the contours of Abraham’s head and back and the down and swooping between Isaac’s body and Abraham’s arm to his knife held upright. The viewer then traces a path past the angels wings once more, moving to the right along swooping circular lines, and the cycle repeats itself.

Sacrifice of Isaac offers a vastly different sense of scale, perspective and depth than Rembrandt’s interpretation.3 Chagall has chosen to flatten out the image, removing most of the qualities that would suggest a three-dimensional space; found in most other versions of the scene. Additionally, he has framed a broader picture, centering the figures of Abraham, Isaac and the angel on a simple background. There is a merging of the background and the foreground into one simple layer. An intimate sense of proportion as found in Rembrandt’s piece, is all but absent in Chagall’s rendition. The characters are slightly distorted in relationship to one another, furthermore, because of the open nature of the painting, the characters are spaced more evenly bringing about a sentiment of reciprocal unity as opposed to one of stratification.

Although these two paintings portray the same biblical scene, the markedly different treatments by each artist clarify the different connotations of meaning for the viewer. The general effect that Rembrandt’s Abraham and Isaac has, is planted in the traditional mindset of the god-fearing Christian.2 In contrast, Chagall’s Sacrifice of Isaac distinguishes itself by leaving the viewer with a consummate admiration for the mercy of God and his divine power.3


1 MU Museum of Art and Archaeology, December 2002, University of Missouri, Columbia, 21 April 2004--

2 Workshop of Rembrandt van Rijn, Abraham and Isaac, MU Museum of Art and Archaeology, Columbia, Missouri.

3 Marc Chagall, Sacrifice of Isaac, Acadamy of Nice, Paris.