A Scene from the Old Testament
Research by Anne Matthews
This painting is designated as ‘after the style of Rembrandt’, the painter and etcher whose work came to dominate what has since been called the Dutch Golden Age.
Although Rembrandt (1606-1669) is well-known for his portraits, the core of his, and many other painters of this school, consisted of depictions of biblical, historical and mythological scenes, a reflection of their schooling. After 1626 a revolutionary change appeared in Rembrandt’s painting which involved the role of light. By concentrating on the light and diminishing the source of light in relation to the distance, he developed what has been crudely termed as the ‘spotlight’ effect, drawing the viewer’s eye to a general focal point. In order to create convincing light effects artists had to compensate by leaving large areas shrouded in shadow, as is evident in this painting.
It has been suggested that Rembrandt was influenced in this regard by his first tutor, circa 1620-25, Jacob van Swanenburgh (1571-1638), who specialised in scenes of hell and the underworld, painting fire and the way its light reflected on surrounding objects. His second teacher, Pieter Lastman (1583-1633), a well-known history painter probably helped Rembrandt to master the placing of figures in biblical settings.
There is a rich body of painting surrounding Abraham’s life, though they tend to focus on a few incidents; entertaining the three angels, the sacrifice of Isaac, and Hagar in the desert.
There are several paintings recreating the scene of Abraham and the Three Angels. Gelder, Eeckhout and Bol, Rembrandt’s pupils, painted this scene, as did Rembrandt himself on more than one occasion. These images are easily accessible online. The paintings by Eeckhout and Willem van, the Elder Herp, show a marked similarity to this piece.
Although this painting is unfortunately very dark, its subject matter, Abraham and the Three Angels, is easily identified as depicting an event from the Old Testament, Genesis 18 v1-19.
Abraham was sitting at his tent door on the plain of Mamre (which in the contemporary style becomes a building) when he was visited by three men whom he recognised as angels. He bowed before them, washed their feet and in the traditional hospitality of the nomad, brought them food. The flour cakes, butter and milk mentioned in the Bible are visible, as is the fact that they ate outside under the trees. The angels then prophesied that a son would be born to Abraham’s wife, Sarah, who overhears their conversation. Although she is usually portrayed as being just visible inside the door, eavesdropping, it is impossible, because of the condition of this painting, to see whether she is included on this occasion. She is said to have laughed at the prophecy, given that they ‘were old and well stricken by age’. However, within the year she had given birth to Isaac and the prophecy fulfilled.
The three seated men are seen as representing the Holy Trinity. Many of the paintings available to view online show them as angels with wings, but they are often depicted as human beings, with reference being made to Hebrews 13 v2 ‘be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some people have entertained angels unawares’. Moreover, the association of Dutch/German painters with Calvinism/Protestantism, as opposed to say the Italian School loving wings and halos, may be of relevance here. Turbans are indicative of the setting being in the Middle East.
Central to this painting is the intimate gesture between one of the angels and Abraham. He reaches out to clasp Abraham’s hand, whose arm, in turn, is resting across his chest. In this telling gesture we are witnessing Abraham, giving his full attention as he gazes on the angel, receiving news that is so close to his heart.