The story of the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22), better known in Hebrew as the Akedah, is a recurrent theme in world literature and art. Caravaggio and Rembrandt’s famous interpretations of “The Sacrifice of Isaac” are merely two well-known paintings among countless works in various media that were inspired since ancient times by this biblical account. Many Israeli artists have also found in the sacrifice of Isaac an inexhaustible artistic source by adapting it to their own cultural and religious context.
“An early interpretation of the Binding of Isaac in Israeli art appears in the work of Rabbi Moshe Mizrahi Shah,” says Gideon Ofrat, a prominent Israeli art historian and curator. Shah was born in Teheran prior to 1870 and came to Palestine sometime around 1890, spent most of his years in Jerusalem and became an outstanding popular artist in pre-Bezalel Eretz-Israel. The tradition of his paintings owes primarily to East-European Jewish craft from the 18th and 19th centuries and to lithographs and paintings from Teheran around 1890, and in the early 20th century painted scenes of the Sacrifice of Isaac, initially in Safed and later in Jerusalem. In all these traditions one may identify a linear, “naïve” representation of Abraham, Isaac, the angel, the ram, the altar, the fire tools and the shrub. The figures are often presented in profile and named.
Shah is one of the many artists whose paintings – including the ones that deal with the Akedah — are represented in the Levin Collection. The collection is comprised of varied works of art by Israeli artists who played a significant role in Israel’s cultural development since the 19th century, and offers a broad historical vision of Israeli art. Its owner, financial strategist Ofer Levin, says Shah’s work influenced other major Israeli artists such as the modernist Moshe Castel and Yitzhak Frenkel, who directly imitated Shah’s work and created paintings on the theme of the Sacrifice in Safed.
Frenkel’s painting (1925) portrays Abraham standing to the right of the altar, the knife in his right hand, his arm is raised above the outstretched Issac, while the angel clutches the knife and the ram is caught in the thicket. This painting reaffirms, according to Ofrat, a rare historical Eretz Israeli encounter between popular art and so-called “high” art.
“Abel Pann,” continues Ofrat, “is another major artist who gained immense popularity for his biblical-themed paintings. During the 1920s, Pann took upon himself his life’s work – representing the biblical stories in the spirit of the local landscapes and indigenous Oriental types. His Binding of Isaac lacks an angel and a ram and it is the first painting in a grand Israeli tradition of paintings and sculptures of the Bindings, in which Isaac is actually slaughtered to death.”
A different reading to the Binding can be found in Arie Navon’s drawing that also belongs to the Levin Collection. Navon is primarily known for his stage designs and as a gifted cartoonist for the now-defunct newspaper “Davar,” who created the first Hebrew comic strip “Uri Muri” in 1934. His interpretation to “The Binding of Isaac” from 1951 modeled Abraham as Mount Moriah, holding his knife in his hand, his face is turned toward the Hand of God popping from the top left corner. The ram located at the bottom of the “mountain” likewise turns its face in expectation to the Divine Hand, whereas the young Isaac is tied to the altar in the middle of the mountain, which is the center of his father’s body, his loins. Navon fuses humorist witticism with a drawing virtuosity.
“The artists mentioned before are only a selection of artists who were dealing with this subject. In addition, the collection holds no less than fourteen drawings by Franz Bernheimer on the same theme, one of the Collection’s earliest investments,” says Levin.
Bernheirmer’s interpretation, explains Ofrat, was original and surprising. He formulated a fierce struggle between Isaac and Abraham. Unlike the biblical story, which emphasizes the son’s silent obedience, however, Bernheimer sought to present an Isaac who refuses to accept his lot and even bitterly objects to his father’s wishes. It was yet another expression of Isaac’s rebellion, a revolt of the sons against the fathers, who force the sacrifice on them, a significant change of perception that began to emerge in Israeli culture after the War of Attrition (1967-1970).
“Observation of Bernheimer’s 14 Binding drawings reveals a traumatic moment in a violent encounter between son and father, often against the backdrop of a wild, empty bony landscape,” Ofrat adds. “The majority of them concentrate exclusively on the father and on the son rebelling against the former’s intention to bind him and carry him to the altar.”