The man’s left hand is on the boy’s neck, holding the head down. On the boy’s face is a grimace.
In this tight detail, nothing else of the man is seen except his right hand. It holds a sharp knife and is moving to make the initial cut.
The man is Abraham. The boy is Isaac. The detail is from the 1603 painting by Caravaggio, The Sacrifice of Isaac.
This image is featured on pages 68-69 in The Law and the Prophets, an art book published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Robin Fox was the editor, and the book was based on a 1967 NBC documentary by Richard Hanser and Donald B. Hyatt.
To the left of the image are sparse words of text:
And God’s servant,
He journeyed into the
Land of Moriah. And there he took the knife
to slay his son Isaac, whom he loved.
A labor of love
Nearly half a century after its publication, what’s striking about The Law and the Prophets is its earnestness. And its showmanship.
Those two aren’t mutually exclusive. Consider the Roman Catholic liturgy with all the robes, candles, marble altars, stained-glass windows, incense, art, wooden pews, statues and so on.
Showy, to be sure. But reverent as well.
I don’t think anyone expected this large-scale, 364-page book to be a money-maker. The NBC documentary on which it was based was widely popular. Still, the production costs on the 194 beautifully reproduced illustrations — 173 of which are in color — must have been high.
This has all the earmarks of a labor of love.
Devotion and artistry
A love of faith and of beauty. Such as this detail from Raphael’s 1512 painting Isaiah:
On the facing page are the words from the book of Isaiah:
Hearken, ye nations.
The Holy One of Israel,
the God of the whole earth,
shall he be called.
There is no one else,
and all the ends of the earth
shall see his salvation.
Another example of artistry and belief is Masaccio’s 1428 fresco of a grieving Adam and Eve, The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden:
The images are shown here as these great works of art look today after being cleaned and restored. When printed in the book a half century ago, they were a bit darker. Nonetheless, their beauty and the religious devotion that inspired their creation are clearly evident.
600 years of art
The Law and the Prophets contains the work of more than 80 artists from the 15th through the 20th centuries. Some of this work is widely known, such as the 1659 painting by Rembrandt, Moses and the Tablets of the Law which is presented opposite a listing of the Ten Commandments:
But others are more obscure, such as this delightful 1467 work by Dieric Bouts, The Gathering of the Manna, in which the manna from heaven appears to be seed-like and the people gathering it seem a lot wealthier than the sort of people who usually go around picking stuff up off the ground:
“A master image”
As the book’s introduction explains, some of the art illustrating those Old Testament stories was created without the Bible in mind:
Where a great artist paints a master image expressing some mood or thought or special insight, it would seem pointless to pass it by in favor of an inferior work merely because the latter bears the correct title (often enough not given by the artist himself!).
That’s why the exhortation from the 4th chapter of Deuteronomy — “Teach they son and they son’s sons” — is illustrated by the 1490 painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Old Man and His Grandson:
It’s a touching picture, communicating a deep mutual affection, even if it wasn’t created to illustrate a biblical verse.
Similarly, the illustration for the nine plagues that afflicted Egypt and forced the pharaoh to let Moses and the Israelites leave has nothing to do with the Bible.
It’s an 1837 painting by J. M. W. Turner of three plagues hitting a town in the Italian Alps. It’s called Valley of Aosta: Snowstorm, Avalanche, and Thunderstorm.
Its earnestness is untempered by any skepticism. It accepts the Bible as central to Western civilization with a full-heartedness that is out of touch with today’s emphasis on diversity and multi-culturalism.
Still, it’s a beautiful book and a faith-filled one, an act of reverence that will still be felt by any reader who is open to its awe.
Patrick T. Reardon