ANDREA DEL SARTO, MICHELANGELO MERISI
Jan L. De Jong
The biblical episode of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac was a current theme in Italian art from c. 1400 to 1600. It certainly was not a 'new' subject, for it already occurred in the arts of the fourth century, for example on the sarcophagus of a Roman prefect called Junius Bassus, who died on July 25, 359 (see ill. 1).1 This sarcophagus shows on its front side two horizontal rows of scenes, illustrating biblical episodes chosen mainly from the New Testament. The scene showing Abraham's Sacrifice is situated in the upper row on the left corner. On the right corner of the same row is a scene which is its pendant, not only because of its position, but also with respect to its content. It shows Jesus before Pontius Pilate and this suggests a link between Isaac (almost) being sacrificed and Jesus being sacrificed. In the following centuries, this 'parallel' was elaborated. Two woodcut illustrations from a Biblia pauperum from c. 1460 show that not only the The sacrifice of Isaac had come to be seen as a type or prefiguration of the crucifixion of Christ, but also that this parallel had been elaborated in great detail.2 Isaac carrying the wood for the altar was paralleled to Christ carrying his cross (see ill. 2), while Isaac being sacrificed was made to correspond to Christ being crucified (see ill. 3).
This extremely short survey of representations of Abraham Sacrificing Isaac illustrates that this scene was generally seen as a prefiguration of the Crucifixion, and its usual context underscored this point of view. In the period after 1400, however, the theme often appeared
1 Now in the Vatican Museum in Rome.
2 The woodcuts illustrated here, from the Biblia pauperum blockbook which is now
in Dresden, Sächsische Landesbibliothek, date from c. 1460, but they continue a
tradition going back to the 14th or 13th century. See A. Henry, 'The Iconography
of the Forty-page Blockbook Biblia pauperum: Form and Meaning', in: S. Mertens
& C. Schneider (eds.), Blockbücher des Mittelalters: Bilderfolgen als Lektüre (Exh. cat.
Mainz, Gutenberg-Museum 1991), Mainz 1991, 263–288, esp. 266.