Gallery P15, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
What are we willing to sacrifice for the god(s) we worship? Growing up in a Southern Baptist home, I was taught that sacrifice was necessary to live a life that was pleasing to God.
Here, Rubens portrays that classic Biblical tale when Abraham is charged by God to sacrifice his son Issac. Though an angel is sent by God to arrest Abraham mid-swing, the fact remains: Abraham was willing to murder his son in cold blood for the love of a God who demanded the greatest sacrifice a father could ever give...for no reason other than to test the man's loyalty and love.
This man, Abraham... This revered, holy, godly man was willing to slaughter his own flesh and blood. That, my dears, is insanity. And yet...it is perceived as an act that epitomizes faith in God's will.
I wonder what became of Isaac. Coming literally inches away from being ritualistically murdered by your own father can't possibly leave you free from psychological or emotional scars. When will God test Dad next? Why did God test him in that way? Does Dad love me? Does God love me?
Do today's "men of God" also view their children as fatted calves ready for possible (if not improbable) moment when God will present them with a similar test? Would they risk life in prison, social excommunication, and the death of a child just to please a deity who made demands that only they could hear?
The most likely answer to that is "no," but the reality is that so many of these men already sacrifice their children in other, less obvious ways. Safety, security, peace, love. All can be - and have been - sacrificed in the name of the gods of public appearance, shame-avoidance, and so on... Abuses get perpetrated and then covered up. Children are cast out when they do not conform to a restrictive dogma. Physical abuse is reframed as "not sparing the rod."
What strikes me most with this painting is Isaac's expression. He looks resigned. It's not that Rubens portrays a young man who wants to die or even that he's necessarily willing to. Instead, it appears as though he's just ready to. He's turned his head away from the expected blow but he does not flinch. He is bound but his appearance is one of someone who did not struggle or fight back.
His expression belies emotional exhaustion. One wonders if Rubens intuited that this was not the first time Isaac had experienced trauma at the hands of a father who put "God's will" above his own son's health and well-being.