Sarah is one of those Biblical figures who just doesn’t get a good ending.
In Chapter 21 of Genesis Sarah becomes jealous of her slave girl Hagar, who is the mother of Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn son. So she has Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away into the wilderness.
Then, in Chapter 22, God commands Abraham to sacrifice Sarah’s own son, Isaac. We’re never told what Sarah thinks about this. At the last moment, God provides a ram to be sacrificed in Isaac’s stead.
And then, in Chapter 23, Sarah dies. So her last acts consist of jealousy and spite, and then presumed terror as her own son is led off to be sacrificed. In this painting, artist Karl Stevens centers the story of the sacrifice of Isaac on Sarah herself, to evoke a more sympathetic understanding of her final days on earth.
About the medallions:
Lower left: This medallion (also featured on the cover) is Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre, right after he’s been told that he and Sarah will have a child after all, and that their descendants will be multitudinous. The faces around the rim of the medallion are those generations, and Abraham is dreaming of them.
Top left: This medallion depicts the angel of the Lord, who keeps Abraham from the sacrifice at the last moment. But also, it’s God who demands the sacrifice to begin with, so the angel also has that role within the painting.
Middle right: This medallion represents the attempted sacrifice. I adapted the image from several Romanesque and Gothic sculptures and friezes, and I hope that the violence and terror of the intended act are apparent. The gear-like pattern on the outside of the medallion is meant to evoke the machine-like nature of ancient sacrifice, the routinized killing of animals and people (including children) to appease the gods. The cultures that surrounded Abraham and his family practiced human sacrifice, and one reading of the Binding of Isaac is that it was meant to make a break with this practice, to dramatically demonstrate that God neither needed nor desired such sacrifices.
Lower right: This medallion is the ram that appears in the thorn bush, and that Abraham sacrifices instead. It is also meant to represent the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, Jesus himself; hence the thorns in their crown-like pattern around the outside of the medallion.
About the artist:
Karl Stevens is an Episcopal priest, artist and spiritual director. He currently serves as Director of Children and Youth Formation at St. John’s, Worthington. You can see more of Karl’s work at prayerbookart.com.