Photo Credit:
Sacrifice of Isaac (20th century) gouache on paper by Shalom of Safed Courtesy Kestenbaum & Company

Finally the top section delineates the climatic moment of aborted sacrifice. Previously the narrative figures have all moved from right to left echoing the actual Hebrew text and the figures of Abraham, Isaac bound on the altar, and the ram caught in a tree-like “thicket” similarly follow this pattern. The great exception is the angel flying in from the left to grasp Abraham’s knife and stop Isaac’s slaughter. Once you notice this device, the visual tension becomes palpable and reflects Abraham’s pietistic frustration (noted in the midrashic commentaries) at being unable to complete the sacrifice as commanded by God. At the altar he has removed his shoes and donned a tallis, details that are Shalom’s unique invention and commentary. In Shalom’s vision, Abraham is the consummate obedient Jew, blindly doing God’s bidding. It is a brilliant and complex, if chilling, depiction of the Akeida.

In my extremely selective survey (I haven’t even touched upon the hundreds of fascinating books and manuscripts, not to mention Judaica offered) of this one pre-auction exhibition at Kestenbaum’s we have seen a breathtakingly wide-ranging survey of Jewish visual art from 1553 to the late 20th century. We have touched the Jewish cultures of Italy, Central Europe, India, Israel and America as we sampled holy texts, home ritual, Biblical narrative and finally the End of Days. Not half bad and not to be missed.

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Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

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