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The Sacrifice of Abraham

crop cat 23.jpg

CAT 23. Robert Sands after Hans Holbein the Younger. The Sacrifice of Abraham. In Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 4. Vernor, Hood & Sharpe, 1808. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Holbein depicted three stages of the Abraham and Isaac story in a single composition. In the foreground the son kneels submissively as the father tightens the branches cut for the fire. Ascending in the middle ground, father and son “walk the walk.” At the top of the mountain, more distant, the angel stays the hand that would have slain the son. In chapter 22 of Billy Budd Melville alludes directly to Abraham and Isaac when Vere and Billy meet in the private interview that seals Billy’s fate: “Captain Vere . . . was old enough to have been Billy’s father. The austere devotee of military duty letting himself melt back into what remains primeval in our formalized humanity may in end have caught Billy to his heart even as Abraham may have caught young Isaac on the brink of resolutely offering him up in obedience to the exacting behest” (NN BBO 58). Neither Holbein nor the Old Testament attributes to Abraham the action imagined by Melville here.

The accompanying commentary in vol. 4 of the Historic Gallery criticizes Holbein for “the impropriety of representing Abraham in the costume of the sixteenth century.” After summarizing the three stages of the picture, the commentator objects that “nothing so much destroys illusion as the reunion of several scenes in the same picture; and this defect is here rendered the more striking, from the aerial perspective being so little visible, that the three groups seem to be too closely connected.” The commentator does spare from “reproach” the depiction of Isaac in the foreground, where the “character” of his head is “pleasing and interesting; the attitude of this figure has, moreover, considerable grace” (n.p.). I have not been able to identify the original “Holbein” painting or drawing upon which Sands based his engraving. (For another treatment of the subject, see CAT 30.)

Robert Sands (1792-1855) was an English line engraver who later in his career specialized in landscape engravings of English artists including Allom, Bartlett, and Turner.