Introduction

closeup of oil painting depicting seated angels

The story of Abraham from the book of Genesis is replete with encounters with God and his angels. For Rembrandt, these confrontations between the earthly and the ethereal, the material and the immaterial, offered fascinating pictorial challenges. Through them, the artist investigated the nature of divine presence and the ways it was perceived.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Abraham is the progenitor of the Jewish people, the individual with whom God established the covenant, promising descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. The patriarch’s story was popular among artists working in the predominantly Calvinist society of the Dutch Republic, particularly after the publication, in 1637, of the Dutch States Bible, a government-sponsored translation with extensive explanatory notes. In a work of 1635 — one of Rembrandt’s earliest monumental history paintings (now in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg) — the artist had depicted the episode in Genesis 22 in which God tests Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac, only to send an angel to intervene at the last minute. Two years later, and continually over the following two decades, Rembrandt returned to the Abraham narrative, taking a deepening interest in its psychological content and in the emotional experience of the patriarch — a father faced with great blessings, devastating losses, and extraordinary contact with the otherworldly.

The centerpiece of this exhibition is Rembrandt’s Abraham Entertaining the Angels of 1646, generously lent from a private collection and on public view for the first time in more than ten years. The painting depicts the foretelling of the birth of Isaac to the elderly Abraham and Sarah, as recounted in Genesis 18. The passage begins with the explicit statement that the Lord appeared to Abraham but then proceeds to describe the visit of three strangers who, according to a note in the States Bible, were the Lord and two angels in the guise of travelers. How to represent this scene of false appearances intrigued Rembrandt, who took on the challenge in the 1646 painting and in an etching made ten years later. In these works and in his depictions of still other episodes from the Abraham narrative, the artist explored, in different media, the pictorial possibilities for conveying divine presence and its perception. Inspired rather than constrained by Calvinism’s prohibition against corporeal representations of God, he depicted the Lord and his angels as physical entities whose signs of divinity are invisible to the mortals within the scenes. Abraham and his family members only gradually perceive the presence of the ethereal in their midst, often looking away in order to grasp what occurs before them. Distinguishing between physical sight and spiritual vision, Rembrandt framed revelation as an intellectual and emotional, rather than sensory, experience.

Detail of Rembrandt's Abraham Entertaining the Angels, 1646. Oil on oak panel. Private collection; photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art