The Vision of the Lord directing Abraham to Count the Stars

Envisioning a turning point in Salvation History.

The Vision of the Lord Directing Abraham to Count the Stars, wood engraving, 1860, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

The Book of Genesis gives an account of Abram being visited by God. Abram was notified of God’s covenant and that he (Abram) would be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. Abram was told, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them” and God said, “So shall your descendants be.” Abram was ninety-nine years old when his name was changed to Abraham (“father of many” in Hebrew) and a covenant with God was made.

In nineteenth-century Europe during the lifetime of German artist, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, there was renewed interest in classicism. This interest in Greek and Roman art was due partly to the discovery of the Roman cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum during the eighteenth century. In AD 79, these two cities were buried by the volcanic ash of Mt. Vesuvius. Cultural changes also brought conditions that favored a return to classicism. Artists who worked in this “neoclassic” style tended to take a formal and intellectual approach to art. Their contemporaries, the Romanticists led by Eugene Delacroix, however, believed art should come from the heart and reflect emotions. When Schnorr first studied in Rome, he admired the art of the late middle ages and Early Renaissance. Later, he was influenced by artists of the High Renaissance, but by mid-nineteenth century, at the time he engraved, The Vision of the Lord Directing Abraham to Count the Stars, there was dramatic action (a characteristic of Romanticism) in his work.

Schnorr first studied engraving with his father and then attended the Vienna Academy in Austria. From there he went to Rome and joined a brotherhood of likeminded artist who sought a return of spiritual content in art. The artists that were part of this fervent group affected biblical manners in their clothes and hair and were soon called, “The Nazarenes.” After ten years in Rome, Schnorr returned to Germany and settled in Munich where he established a successful career painting frescos and designing windows for churches.

While on a visit to London in 1851, Schnorr was commissioned to create a Picture Bible. During the next eight years, he completed more than two hundred wood engravings in which he interpreted biblical stories and events. Schnorr’s Bible contains the dramatic engraving that depicts God calling Abraham’s attention to the heavens. When Abraham looked at the stars, he was awed and fell to kneel on one knee. God is there before him pointing to the stars. As in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, God is shown surrounded by figures symbolizing unborn generations that are to come to earth when it is their time.

Hovak Najarian © 2018

Be well. Do good. Pay attention. Keep learning.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Story of Abraham | Art for Lent 2C

Genesis 15:1 The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

The Story of Abraham
The Story of Abraham
Gilded bronze, 79 x 79 cm
Baptistry, Florence
(b. 1378, Firenze, d. 1455, Firenze)Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

The Story of Abraham, detail of the “Gates of Paradise,” 1425-52, Gilt Bronze, Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1378-1455

In 1401, the wool merchant’s guild of Florence announced a competition that would lead to a commission for a set of bronze doors for the Baptistery of San Giovanni (Saint John). Lorenzo Ghiberti won the competition and was given the commission. Upon completion, he was given a commission to design a second set of doors for the Baptistery. The doors and a few other pieces of sculpture would become his life’s work. “The Story of Abraham” is one of ten panels from the second set of doors which now is referred to as the “Gates of Paradise.” According to Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo was looking at the doors when a companion asked his opinion. Michelangelo said allegedly the doors were so beautiful they were worthy to serve as the gates of paradise.

Ghiberti’s training as a goldsmith and metalworker was invaluable as he solved the technical problems of casting the bronze doors. Other sculptors were eager to learn from him. Also, he read widely, was a humanist, and was open to the changes during a time of cultural and artistic rebirth. Just as early Renaissance painters sought to create an illusion of depth, Ghiberti studied perspective and applied it to his relief sculpture. Rather than his reliefs being figures attached to a flat background, he sculpted the entire surface to create an illusion of pictorial depth. With regard to the “Gates of Paradise” he said “I sought to imitate nature as closely as possible.”

In the panel called “The Story of Abraham,” Ghiberti combined two accounts from the Book of Genesis. At the lower left is the story found in Genesis 18:2-10; a time when three men (Ghiberti interpreted them as heavenly beings with wings) came to Abraham. Sarah is at the doorway of their tent while Abraham is kneeling before the men with a pan of water with which they may wash their feet. The men tell him his wife, Sarah, will have a son. Ghiberti’s narrative composition continues with images from Genesis 22:3-13; the sacrifice of Isaac. At the lower center is a donkey and to its right are Abraham’s two servants who wait while he and Isaac go to a higher level of the mountain. Above them, Isaac is kneeling on an altar and Abraham has raised his knife. An angel has arrived just in time to hold back the knife and stop him from killing his son. Behind the feet of Abraham is a ram caught in a thicket; it will be sacrificed in place of Isaac.


Because the rite of baptism was regarded to be a door to heaven, a baptistery was symbolically a “gateway to paradise.” Michelangelo’s alleged description of Ghiberti’s doors, if true, could have meant simply that the doors were worthy of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, not paradise itself.

Early scholars were interested in the many parallels found in the story of Abraham and the passion of Christ. Both stories deal with father, son, and sacrifice.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Let us help you meet an artist and his work

Note: These comments are prepared and shared with you so that you can meet Dieric Bouts (artist) and his subject The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, a detail of his altarpiece triptych in Sint-Pieterskerk, Leuven The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek is part of an altarpiece by Dieric Bouts (c.1415 -1475).  Although Bouts, The Elder (his sons also were painters) was Dutch, his career and artistic reputation was established in Flanders (now Belgium) where he lived and worked.  His triptych (trip-tik) for St. Peter’s Church in Leuven is regarded to be one of his finest paintings. A triptych (from the Greek: tri – meaning “three,” plus ptyche – the word for “fold”) is a three-paneled altarpiece found notably in churches from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance.  Early triptychs were relief carvings in wood or ivory but egg tempera became the favored medium of painters during the thirteenth and fourteenth century.  Egg tempera offered a wide range of colors but by the fifteenth century it, too, was being replaced as oils became the medium of choice.  Oil paints offered ease of application and with it a greater range of effects could be achieved.  Dieric Bouts worked in oils on wood panels. In a triptych, the outer panels are usually half the size of the middle panel and are attached with hinges so they can be folded like shutters.  A typical triptych has a familiar Biblical scene in the large center panel while the side panels provide a supporting cast of figures or related stories.  The side panels may also include the donor(s) as part of a tableau.  When the outer panels are folded their reverse sides become the front of the triptych and they also are carved or painted usually in keeping with the overall theme.

Click the image to view the entire Triptych

In the center panel, Bouts’ principal subject in the triptych at Leuven is the Last Supper.  The two outer panels – each containing two paintings one above the other – are Biblical scenes from Old Testament events in which the provision of bread was interpreted as prefiguring the Last Supper.

The left hand panel: The upper painting of the left panel depicts the Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek when Melchizedek offers bread and wine to Abraham as he returns from battle.  Below that painting is the Feast of the Passover in which unleavened bread will be eaten.

The center panel:  Christ is the focus of attention with his face just above the exact center of the triptych.  He and his disciples are seated at a table and are about to break bread and participate in the communion.  The architectural setting is gothic in style.

The right hand panel: The upper painting of the right panel is The Gathering of Manna.  Manna is described as a bread-like tasting substance provided by the Lord.  The painting below it is Elijah in the Desert.  Bread is given to Elijah by an angel.

In Bouts’ triptych, the four Old Testament stories in which bread plays a role are intended to communicate visually the message of a connection between the stories and the Last Supper. Additional Notes:

As is found often in Gothic and Renaissance painting, the clothing and architectural styles in the Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek are not in keeping with the time period being depicted.  The men are dressed in the manner of Europeans of the fifteenth century, and the architecture in the distance is not of Biblical times but rather typical of the time in which Bouts lived.  It even includes a gothic church.

Developments in the art of Europe varied from place to place and often it is difficult to give a name to designate a style.  Historians may refer to the style of fifteenth century Northern Europe as “Late Gothic” whereas the art of Italy during that same time period may be referred to as “Early Renaissance.”

A painting consists of pigment, a surface, and a medium.  Pigments are derived from many sources, ranging from earth colors to organic material.  A surface may be anything as long as it is compatible, or can be coated to make it compatible, with the type of paints that are being used.  The medium is a binder that mixes with the pigments to hold the fine particles together and to bond it to the surface that is being used.  Egg yolk is the medium in egg tempera; linseed or other oils are used in oil paints.

______________ © 2012 Hovak Najarian

B Lent 5, Art for Readings for March 25, 2012

BOUTS, Dieric the Elder
(b. ca. 1415, Haarlem, d. 1475, Leuven)
Click to open Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament.

The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek
Side Panel from the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament
Oil on panel
Sint-Pieterskerk, Leuven
Click to open Web Gallery of Art commentary page. Click image again for extra large view.