Donatello sculpted a host of early biblical figures – David, Judith and Holofernes, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah among others. Abraham and Isaac (the Sacrifice of Isaac) (1421) came first, except for the marble David that Donatello created three decades before the famous bronze version. Abraham and Isaac, which he created with Nanni di Bartolo, known as Rosso, was an early test of his skill depicting narratives from the Hebrew Bible.
Maybe appropriately, the sacrifice of Isaac is also a test.
In Genesis 22: 1-13, G-d announces that He will test Abraham and orders him to bring his “son, [his] only son” to a mountain in the land of Moriah for a sacrifice. Abraham does as commanded, deceiving Isaac about the purpose of their journey. In the nick of time, an angel called to Abraham and said that he had proved his devotion; he could sacrifice a ram caught in a nearby thicket in lieu of his son.
Donatello’s Abraham looks gangly. His thick arms and broad hands hang down, suddenly relaxed, letting the knife fall away from Isaac’s exposed carotid artery. The wide-eyed, skinny boy stares down away from his father, knowing that he would not die that day, after all.
Abraham and Isaac (the Sacrifice of Isaac) (1421) keeps the angel, the ram, and the thicket outside of the frame. The rendering is uniquely simple. Some of that simplicity reflects the narrow frame of the cathedral it was made to adorn. Donatello also made optical corrections for the sculpture’s placement high in a niche on the cathedral façade. Viewed from below, the hands and arms of the sculpture would appear smaller in proportion to the rest of the body.
But the figures remain unusual: too intimate and casual for the grand narrative that they embody. No other artist, before or after Donatello, made an image of the sacrifice of Isaac quite like this one.
Some of the earliest Christian depictions of Abraham and Isaac come from the Roman catacombs. These 60-some crypts, built into soft volcanic rock on the outskirts of Rome between the 2nd and 7th centuries CE, contained the bodies of martyrs, the relics of saints, and a wealth of art depicting Christian liturgy and practice. According to the early 20th-century scholar Alison Moore Smith, catacomb frescoes depicting the sacrifice of Isaac typically show one of three moments from the biblical narrative: father and son approaching the altar, father on a pedestal and son standing at the altar with the ram, and father standing over kneeling son. Some versions – especially ones that show the father standing over kneeling son – add a ram and the icon Christian icon of the “right hand of God.”
One fresco from the Catacomb of Marcellinus and Peter, depicting the third scenario, shows Isaac nude and Abraham in a short Roman tunic with a boxy altar going up in flames with a prancing lamb present. Abraham grabs Isaac’s shoulder, but there is no malice in his stance. The curved dagger hangs too low and swings too widely to deal a death blow. Perhaps the angel has intervened or, perhaps for this image, Abraham’s heart was not in it.
Over time, more symbols and figures crowded scenes of the sacrifice of Isaac. On sarcophagi from the Mediterranean rim in the early Common Era, Abraham and Isaac typically appear with the hand of God, reflecting a transition from Jewish iconoclasm to Christian iconography of the Father and the Son. Farther into the Middle East, early Christian artists showed Isaac on the altar more often than kneeling on the ground and added Sarah (Abraham’s wife and Isaac’s mother), the character of a servant (who does not appear in Genesis), a donkey or a horse, and extra foliage.
The sacrifice of Isaac caught on during the Byzantine period, once artists and theologians understood it as a parallel to God the Father offering his son Jesus to atone for humanity’s sins. The central figures began to appear with halos, flowing robes, and more elaborate decoration, in contrast to the simplicity of the early Christian imagery. In the West, this part of Genesis had less of a following among artists and when it appeared, it did so with a strongly didactic cast.
But in the sculpted interior of Norwich Cathedral in Norfolk, England, the story appears twice. The Late-Gothic-style cathedral nave features a series of bosses – architectural protrusions – depicting scenes from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. One boss shows Abraham and Isaac with the simplicity, fatherly emotion, and lack of overt symbolism that characterize very early Christian art. The other, more prominent in the structure of the nave, shows a prayerful Isaac, sitting on an altar covered in fringed fabric, and Abraham standing tall and seemingly free of doubts about the act that he is soon to commit.
Helen Sherman identifies the latter boss as the quintessential medieval depiction of the sacrifice of Isaac. The nave dates to the 1640s, well after the Italian Renaissance. England took longer than continental Europe did to emerge from Gothic conventions of art and architecture. But Sherman connects the simply styled boss to quatrefoils that Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi produced for the doors of the Florence Baptistery. These two master sculptors competed for the commission of the grand doors by producing relief sculptures of the sacrifice of Isaac, which had to include the father/son pair, two servants, the angel, and a sheep. Sherman identifies Ghiberti’s winning submission, with its idealized human forms and asymmetric, uncluttered composition, as the aesthetic that would define the High Renaissance.
Ghiberti and Brunelleschi may have influenced medieval style in depictions of Abraham and Isaac as much as it influenced them. And they probably influenced Donatello, their contemporary and fellow Florentine. But where does Donatello himself fit on the historical arc of artistic style?
19 years after Ghiberti and Brunelleschi made their Abraham and Isaac sculptures, Donatello began his. Ghiberti had shown Abraham and Isaac just before the divine intervention and Brunelleschi had shown them in the midst of it. Donatello chose to depict a more internal drama: Abraham’s solace and gratitude after G-d tells him that he would not have to sacrifice his son. In some sense, this Abraham takes after Abraham of the Catacomb of Marcellinus and Peter: less symbolic than fatherly.
However, Timothy Verdon, co-curator of Sculpture in the Age of Donatello, identifies qualities that make this image of Abraham and Isaac absolutely new. With this sculpture, Donatello invented the figura serpentinata e moltiplicata, the coiled, multiple-figure grouping. Donatello himself would use this structure again in Judith and Holofernes (1460). High Renaissance artists like Michelangelo would later make it more elaborate.
Moreover, Donatello’s Isaac was the first male nude of the Renaissance. This, too, foreshadowed the artist’s later work. The bronze David, from the 1440s, was the Renaissance’s first freestanding male nude.
But where David, another figure from the Hebrew Bible, may be erotic in Donatello’s depiction, Isaac is naïve. Genesis does not actually specify Isaac’s age at the time of the near-sacrifice. At one point, the Talmud – a massive code of Jewish law and a sort of commentary on the Hebrew Bible – says that he was 37 years old. Artists in both Christian and Jewish traditions, however, have tended to depict him as a child.
Donatello made Isaac exactly that, a child with a middle-aged father.
History did not take this simplicity with it. In the Baroque period, painters rather than sculptors picked up the topic. Domenichino, Caravaggio, Pedro Orrente, and Rembrandt van Rijn produced Abraham and Isaac scenes with intense emotional content, symbolism, and coloration. Chiaroscuro, rounded lines, cherubic angels, background landscapes, and glowing faces replaced Donatello’s angled planes, simple garments, and familiar interaction. A rare Baroque sculpture of Abraham and Isaac, by the Spanish artist Alonso Berruguete, shows both men wailing grotesquely. Gold drapery encases their twisted bodies.
Donatello stepped outside the historical framework. Early Christian and Classical all at once, the 1421 Abraham and Isaac is a category unto itself, and it’s on view at MOBIA through June 14.
– ABK for MOBIA