Divine Encounter: Rembrandt’s Abraham and the Angels

By Andrew Hendrixson

There isn’t a trace of frivolity to be found here. The questions posed are serious ones laden with the gravity of their implications, but they emerge quietly and slowly before lodging themselves in the chest.

Divine Encounter: Rembrandt’s Abraham and the Angels,currently on view at The Frick Collection, is a group of etchings, ink drawings, and a single painting, Abraham Entertaining the Angels, which has not been on public view in more than a decade.

The exhibit was organized by Joanna Sheers Seidenstein, Anne L. Polet Curatorial Fellow at The Frick Collection, and it is an exercise in the poignancy that results from editing away extraneous fillers. The exhibition catalogue, also written by Seidenstein, is thorough in its references and inclusions and further contextualizes the exhibit’s aims.

RembrandtTucked into the Cabinet Gallery, Divine Encounter is a small exhibit but it is incisive and well curated; each piece selected is there to do work. The work that the show does is to engage the question of the space between physical sight and spiritual vision. Using the account of the Lord’s appearing to Abraham in Genesis 18 as a backdrop, the exhibit engages the narratives surrounding Abraham and Sarah and, consequently, Isaac, Ishmael, and Hagar.

And rather than simply historiography rendered visually, the works in Divine Encounter assert various possible ways in which one might see the divine, either perceived with the eyes, or less empirically, perceived with intuition and faithfulness; with the spirit. Furthermore, the works incite questions of sacrifice for, and submission to, the Lord, and what faithfulness might mean.

In one ink drawing, Sacrifice of Isaac from 1652-54, Rembrandt renders Abraham standing over a reclined Isaac, his hands bound. One of Abraham’s hands covers Isaac’s mouth and the other hand holds the knife to his son’s throat. The quick but sinuously drawn lines huddle together to form the violent scene, one in which it seems that Isaac is resisting his father’s action. Abraham in this drawing seems unaware of the angel above him, so focused is he upon carrying out the sacrifice. The drawing is vicious and one can almost hear its pain.

In the work directly to the right of this, Sacrifice of Isaac, an etching from 1655, we see a markedly different take on the same narrative. In this etching, Abraham is standing. Isaac, seemingly willfully, is bent toward his father and ready to receive the knife. “Abraham covers only his son’s eyes, a gesture that looks more protective than violent.[1]” An angel has embraced Abraham in order to stop the sacrifice, and Abraham appears fully aware of both the angel and the ram hidden in the darker lines of the left side of the picture plane.

Among the other available reads from these two works is the question of Isaac and his submission or resistance to the divine encounter his father had, the encounter in which Isaac’s own death was commanded.

In another etching, Abraham Caressing Isaac from 1637-45, Abraham sits with a child, either Isaac or Ishmael, in his arms. The child is smiling widely and carefree. Abraham, in contrast, is sitting straight-backed and stern. His face is turned toward the viewer in a look that seems to be both a plea for help and the recognition of the severity of the enacting of his faithfulness, in this instance, to either banish one son or to sacrifice the other.

While this is the only piece in the show that so explicitly and resolutely implicates the viewer, the piece functions as a lens through which to engage the rest of the work. It seems to suggest that the question of how one understands and sees the divine encounter, which kinds of vision one is to privilege, is not merely Abraham’s question locked in history but Rembrandt’s, and now not just Rembrandt’s question but our own. We carry it around the small gallery with us and right on out the door onto 5th Avenue.

Rembrandt is an old hand. He is an artist for whom many of us claim a measure of literacy. After all, his name is used as a common shorthand for the things for which we want to imbue with superlatives. “Rembrandt” has become an adjective in common usage and there is even a toothpaste-cum-namesake that boasts, what one can only guess, its apparently Rembrandt-like ability to whiten the teeth of its users.

And with the help of these myriad appropriations, Rembrandt is an artist whom we risk knowing too little about for our assumptions that we possess a substantial working knowledge. Divine Encounter is a grouping of works that will deepen viewers’ previous engagements with Rembrandt’s work, or perhaps introduce viewers to more thoughtfully consider what it is that the artist seems to be working out and working through. The show’s centerpiece, Abraham Entertaining the Angels is rightly placed and undoubtedly worthy of close attention, but the show in its entirety is the rare show without a weak link.  Never before have I so thoroughly engaged or considered a group of small etchings and ink drawings. Nothing in the small gallery smacks of the preparatory or insignificant.

Like all significant works of art, the works in Divine Encounter are not an end to themselves. This collection of works point beyond a mere celebration of Rembrandt’s masterful use of light and line and places the works at the service of the urgent questions the show proposes.

I stepped off of a hot New York City sidewalk and into the cool, high-ceilinged airiness of The Frick and it wasn’t long before I was startled by the quietude that was encroaching into my head. The intimate space of The Frick’s Cabinet Gallery invited me into a presence and slowness that brought forth many of the questions, those articulable and especially those inarticulable, that I carry around with me most days: questions of the material and the immaterial, of the accuracy or inaccuracy of my intuitions, how it is that one comes to know things.

I recognized in Rembrandt’s work many of those same questions and felt a new resonance with Abraham and his efforts to see and hear and be faithful. I felt a pang of empathy for Hagar, the oft-overlooked slave in the narrative. Stepping back outside and onto that hot sidewalk, I felt that I had somehow heard and been heard by Rembrandt’s works of the Divine Encounter.

Upon arriving home I revisited Genesis 18 with a galvanized hope of seeing and hearing and perceiving with a new attentiveness to that which is seen and unseen.

[1] Joanna Sheers Seidenstein, from the exhibition catalogue

Andrew Hendrixson is an artist and writer who holds a M.F.A. in Paintingand Drawing from the University of Florida. His most recent exhibition was this June’s Far Resolutions at Hammond Harkins Gallery in Columbus, Ohio. He is currently a graduate student in Religion and the Arts in the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University.

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