“God said to Abraham, kill me a son. Abe said 'God, you must be puttin’ me on.'”
— Bob Dylan
There are a lot of things to like about the Getty’s ongoing show of works of late Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto, including a bevy of rare red-chalk working drawings of figures that went into his greatest paintings. Seeing these is like having a scan of the mind of the great painter himself as he accomplishes his mighty work.
But to me the most arresting work there was one of three extant versions of del Sarto’s “The Sacrifice of Isaac.” It’s a subject that’s inspired artists as various as Rembrandt, Caravaggio and — as we shall see — sculptor George Segal. But no one ever did it better than del Sarto.
It’s an incomplete picture, with some brown underpainting clearly visible. But you don’t notice things like that. What you notice is an old man with a big knife about to kill a buff naked teenager. It’s the facial expressions that come out at you as much as the horrible action.
Old Abraham’s is that of a farmer somehow compelled to kill a favorite animal, but eager to get it over with as quickly as possible. Isaac’s is a wonderful compilation of horrified wide-eyed disbelief. "My beloved father, the man I care for most in this entire world, is about to cut my throat!"
The details are enthralling: Isaac cowers in his helpless nudity. As Abraham leaps to his vile, divine task, his superhero’s red cloak billows like Captain Marvel’s.
And then, bang right there in the middle — for though this is a flat painting, its genius creator makes it seem like a kind of animated sequence — there is this little winged cupid touching Abraham on the left shoulder. It’s an angel, God’s little sock puppet, saying "No, Abe, God’s just been messing with you.’’
“Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.’’
An unfortunate ram is found nearby and sacrificed in Issac’s stead. And this weird tale becomes a narrative of faith and love in the three global monotheistic religions — because of his faith, Abraham’s vast progeny spread all over the world, as Genesis hurries on to describe. But if Abraham and God ever talked to one another again, the Bible doesn’t mention it.
Del Sarto has his own doubts. In his great painting, what you take away is the lifelong trauma both men would experience: Dad wanted to kill me, I nearly killed my own son. It’s in their faces for us to see — not in the form of love or faith, but as enduring, eternal horror. They may trust in God, but they can never again trust one another.
A great artist of our own time did his own rendering of the same scripture, and this work’s history shows how deep within us the trauma of murdering our children remains. Almost 40 years ago, sculptor George Segal did simple life-size bronze of the story — with Isaac in chains, kneeling in wait for his father’s knife.
(Princeton University Art Museum)
The work was to commemorate the 1970 tragedy of Kent State, where National Guard troops fatally shot four protesting students. After much hypocritical blathering, the university rejected the statue as too controversial. Nothing could better show how powerful the ancient story remains to this day, that Midwestern officialdom still cannot look its powerful lesson in the face.
If you want to see Segal’s take on Abe and Ike, it’s on display at Princeton University. But del Sarto’s masterpiece , on loan from the Cleveland Museum, is still there on the Getty’s hill in Brentwood.
"Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action" is at the Getty Center through Sept. 13.