EARLY CHRISTIAN ART
Eddy van den Brink
For almost 40 years any research on Abraham's Sacrifice has been facilitated by Speyart's invaluable article,1 containing a full, after some checking still rather complete, Catalogue of the Monuments. Her list of 311 items from the 3rd through the 13th century gives 195 items from Late Antiquity, and another 87 from the Middle Ages, the 9th through the 12th century. This means that Abraham's Sacrifice was frequently painted and sculpted in Late Antiquity, at least by Christian artists. The list contains only 2 Jewish monuments, Doura Europos and Beth Alpha; with the discovery of Sepphoris in 1993 the sum total of Jewish monuments, to the best of my knowledge, still amounts to only 3. The image is also very old: Abraham's Sacrifice in Doura is the first known Jewish painting (244) and it is among the earliest of the Christian in San Callisto Catacomb, dating from shortly after 200. In chronological terms we therefore start with the Christian artist in San Callisto (see fig. 1).
The image is simple, but very well painted, like most of the catacomb painting. To regard it as the pious amateur brushwork of Christian dilettanti is a 19th century fairy tale. These paintings show the expert hand of professional, which in the 3rd century means: pagan painters, with whom Christian believers placed their orders.
Represented here are Abraham and Isaac as orantes, with praying gesture, the ram, a tree, the wood for the burnt offering, and perhaps we catch a glimpse of an altar on the left. What we have here, is an image-sign, like most of the first Christian catacomb paintings. They 'are not meant to represent events—they only suggest them', they 'imply more than they actually show', so that their 'clar
1 Isabel Speyart van Woerden, 'The Iconography of the Sacrifice of Abraham',
Vigiliae Christianae 15 (1961) 214–255. Easily accessible surveys are provided by
Reallexikon Antike und Christentum 1, Stuttgart 1950 (RAC), 22–27; Reallexikon Byzantinische
Kunst 1, Stuttgart 1966 (RBK), 11–22; Lexikon der christlichen Ikonographie 1, Freiburg
i Br 1968 (LCI), 23–30.