Students will compare various artists’ interpretation of the Abraham and Isaac story. They will create artwork based on other key figures in the history of the Jewish religion (i.e. Moses, Naomi, Ruth, or David) or on an important story from another ancient culture they have studied.
Abraham and Isaac, early 16th century
Time Alloted1 - 2 Class Periods
State Content Standards
Social Studies Standards for 6th grade
6.3.3. Explain the significance of Abraham, Moses, Naomi, Ruth, David, and Yohanan ben Zaccai in the development of the Jewish religion
Visual and Performing Arts Standards for 6th grade
1.2 Discuss works of art as to theme, genre, style, idea, and differences in media.
1.3 Describe how artists can show the same theme by using different media and styles.
5.2 Research how traditional characters (such as the trickster) found in a variety of cultures past and present are represented in illustrations.
5.3 Create artwork containing visual metaphors that express the traditions and myths of selected cultures.
- A large reproduction (art print, overhead transparency or computer-projection) of Abraham and Isaac for display and for classroom instruction. These images are accessible on Digital Crocker at crockerartmuseum.org, on the Striking Gold CD ROM, and slides and overheads available for purchase through School Services.
- Reproductions of the focus artwork for each pair of student if possible
- Initial worksheet of questions – one for each student
- A variety of Abraham and Isaac scenes, see recommendations below
- Art reference book and/or computers with Internet access
Maerten van Heemskerck was a 16th century Dutch painter, draughtsman and print designer. He was among the second generation of artists from northern Europe who traveled to Italy to see and study firsthand classical sculptures and monuments and the work by contemporary artists like Raphael and Michelangelo. He brought his drawings back to Haarlem and disseminated his studies through the works he created during his successful career.
Heemskerck’s painting Abraham and Isaac refers to a story in the Bible, from Genesis 22:1-19, but told by many artists. As a test of Abraham’s faith God commanded him to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham followed God’s word, but was prevented from sacrificing his son by the intervention of an angel. The angel declared that God believed Abraham to be a “God-fearing man” as he was prepared to slay his own son.
It was painted in Haarlem by Heemskerck before he went to Rome. His teacher was Jan van Scorel, who was among the first artists from northern Europe to absorb High Renaissance art in Italy and bring it back to the Netherlands.
Heemskerck probably painted Abraham and Isaac before he left for Rome in 1532.
Why is this significant?
Heemskerck enjoyed a long and successful career upon his return to Haarlem and became one of the leading Dutch painters of the 16th century. His work was frequently engraved and became highly influential.
Make a connection:
This Old Testament story has been the subject of many paintings from the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Locate another painting of this subject and compare and contrast it with Heemskerck’s version. Which one do you think tells the story more dramatically? Explain your answer.
1. Teacher will divide the class into small collaborative groups of students (about 4 to 5). Teacher projects the image of Abraham and Isaac on a large screen and distributes to each student a worksheet of questions appropriate for the class. Students are to look silently (between 3 and 5 minutes) at the image and jot down answers to the worksheet questions. Worksheet questions may be composed of some of the following questions:
• Describe carefully what you see.
• What do you notice first? What drew your attention to it?
• What colors predominate?
• Describe the lines in the painting? Where do they lead your eye?
• What is each person in the painting doing?
• What is the setting of this painting? Why do you think the artist chose this setting?
• Where is each person in the painting looking?
• Do you recognize the people in the painting?
2. At the end of the silent looking, students in the small groups can share their information or the teacher can facilitate a classroom discussion of what students described and speculated.
3. Teacher then enlarges the scope of the discussion by asking questions, which reveal how much information students know about Judaism and about the story of Abraham and Isaac. Questions might include some of the following:
• Who are Abraham and Isaac? Why are they important to Jewish teaching?
• What ideas are prominent in Jewish teaching?
• Where did Judaism originate?
• Are there any further questions about Judaism, Abraham and Isaac, or about this particular painting?
• If you have questions, where might you go for further information?
4. After the classroom discussion, teacher distributes to each student the account of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22:1-19 Depending on student abilities within the class, the teacher might do any of the following:
• Assign each student to read the account silently. Students may take notes or underline important facts and key ideas.
• Within each group, students divide up the account and read it aloud within the group.
• Teacher may assign students to read paragraphs or sections aloud for the benefit of the entire class.
5. Have students work in their small groups to find images from the biblical account in the focus artwork. Have each group share their findings with the rest of the class.
6. Provide each group with access to the Crocker’s Abraham and Isaac and a reproduction of another Abraham and Isaac scene from another artist (or have them find their own example). See recommendations below.
7. Have students work in pairs or small groups to compare the imagery from the Genesis account of Abraham and Isaac in the Crocker’s Abraham and Isaac and their other example and record what similarities and differences they observe on a Venn diagram. Have students share their findings with the rest of the class.
8. Have students read biblical or other accounts of important events in the lives of Moses, Naomi, Ruth, David (or other mythical or historical figures from other ancient cultures they have studied). Have students make a list of important imagery or symbols from their story/myth and create an original work of art that incorporates those images and symbols.
Possible extensions or homework:
1. Have students research Marten van Heemskerck and the artist of the other Abraham and Isaac scene they studied. Have them write a short research paper comparing the life and work of these two artists, paying special attention to the artists’ style and influences.
Other Suggested Images:
Andrea del Sarto
The Sacrifice of Abraham, 1527-28
Oil on poplar panel, 213 x 159 cm
The Sacrifice of Isaac, c. 1605
Oil on canvas, 116 x 173 cm
Piasecka-Johnson Collection, Princeton
Rembrandt van Rijn
The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God, 1635
Oil on canvas.
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
Laurent de La Hyre
Abraham Sacrificing Isaac, 1650
Oil on canvas
Musée Saint-Denis, Reims
Sacrifice of Isaac, 1933
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco
The Sacrifice of Isaac, c.1960-1965
The Chagall Museum, Nice
Maerten van Heemskerck was a 16th century Dutch painter, draughtsman and print designer. He was among the second generation of northern European artists to travel to Italy. He is well known for his two Italian sketchbooks which are considered historical documents as well as recordings of his impressions of Rome. He is credited with spreading the influence of Michelangelo and Giulio Romano in northern Europe through his strong, monumental style with an emphasis on anatomical detail. He was born in Heemskerck in Holland where his father was a farmer. Heemskerck was first apprenticed by his father to Cornelis Willemsz in Haarlem. He next studied with Jan Lucasz in Delft. He however received his more significant training from Jan van Scorel in Utrecht from about 1527 – 1529.
Jan van Scorel was among the first artists from northern Europe to absorb High Renaissance art in Italy and bring it back. He traveled to Italy, setting out in 1519 for Venice. From there he joined a group of pilgrims and sailed to Cyprus, Rhodes, Crete, and on to Jerusalem. Scorel returned to Venice a year later and then made his way to Rome where he worked for Pope Adrian VI, a native of Utrecht. Scorel was back in Utrecht by 1524 where he set up his workshop. His works exhibited the knowledge he had gained in Italy where he had studied Classical sculpture and the works of Raphael and Michelangelo. When Heemskerck began to study under Scorel, he had already trained under two artists in Haarlem and was only three years younger than his master. He, however, learned so much from Scorel that experts have difficulty separating the work of the apprentice from his master, especially with regard to portraits.
Heemskerck traveled also to Rome and was among the second generation of artists from northern Europe to travel to Italy. By the time Heemskerck left, however, he was a fully trained artist and had already been influenced indirectly by the Italian Renaissance through Scorel’s workshop. He left in 1532 and stayed for about four to five years. While in Rome he filled two sketchbooks with drawings of classical sculpture and monuments, the work of contemporary artists, such as Raphael and Michelangelo, and the construction of St. Peter’s. Under the influence of classical sculpture he closely studied human anatomy. His drawings of classical ruins and sculpture provided him with background material for many of his later paintings and engravings.
When Heemskerck returned north to Haarlem, he enjoyed a long and successful career and was much appreciated in his own time, painting large altarpieces, portraits and smaller works of both religious and mythological subjects. He also produced a large number of drawings for prints. He was married twice, his first wife having died during childbirth. He held several civic positions in Haarlem, including being elected one of the city fathers from 1568 to 1571. He enjoyed friendships with Dirck Volkertsz Coomhert, an engraver, writer and philosopher and with the humanist Hadrianus Junius as well as Cornelis Musius, the prior of the monastery of St. Aagten in Delft.
Heemskerck made drawings for nearly 600 prints which were transferred on to copper plates by professional engravers. He was the first Dutch artist to use engraving professionally and was therefore able to produce a considerable output. In 1547 Dirck Coomhert became his partner as etcher, engraver and probably also wood-engraver. His designs were mainly of a didactic nature in accordance with humanist ideals of the 16th century. He was inspired by his Italian studies, printed Bibles and other individual German prints. Most of his prints had captions in Latin verse, composed by Hadrianus Junius, Heemskerck’s humanist friend. His drawings were printed in large editions and were reprinted until the 18th century. In fact Rembrandt had a collection of prints after Heemskerck and used them as a source of inspiration. Heemskerck spent his career in Haarlem, only leaving when the city was under siege by the Spanish in 1572 –3, during which time he went to Amsterdam. He died at the age of 76 and was buried in St. Bavo in Haarlem.
About Dutch and Flemish Artists in Rome, 1500 – 1600:
In the 16th century, Rome was the center for artists throughout Europe, especially the Netherlands and northern France. Rome offered its classical ruins, works by contemporary masters like Raphael and Michelangelo and possible patronage from powerful individuals and the Catholic Church. Important Netherlandish painters who journeyed to Rome and stayed, sometimes for decades and often for years, were Jan Gossaert, Jan van Scorel, Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Maarten van Heemskerck, and Paul Bril among others. They were also joined by sculptors and engravers. Once in Rome, these artists interacted with and left their own imprint on the cultural scene.
During the 16th century Rome was a huge resource for artists to study classical remains, sculptural as well as architectural. The monuments, sculptures, and frescoes were eagerly observed, measured, drawn, excavated, reconstructed, and collected. Jan Gossaert, Hendrick Goltzius as well as Maarten van Heemskerck documented through drawings all that they saw and studied. Such drawings were brought back home and became part of their artistic vocabulary, and some were translated into prints which disseminated their knowledge to other artists.
By the early 1520s Raphael had completed his Stanze and Michelangelo his Sistine Ceiling frescoes in the Vatican and these exerted an influence on all artists, both foreign and local. As noted above, Maerten van Heemskerck’s emphasis on anatomical detail in his subsequent work clearly exhibited the influence of Michelangelo. Some visiting northern artists even found patronage while studying and observing the city. Jan van Scorel, Heemskerck’s teacher, worked for the Dutch pope Adrian VI, in the early 1520s, and served as curator of the Vatican collection in the Belvedere, succeeding Raphael in that job.
Maerten van Heemskerck’s painting captures the dramatic moment when the angel stopped Abraham from killing his son Isaac. Instead of an altar, Isaac kneels in front of his father on a small hill. Below on the right the ram is shown caught in the bushes. In the figure of Abraham, Heemskerck focused on the musculature of Abraham’s exposed right knee and his raised right arm holding the knife.
www.oxfordartonline.com “Heemskerck, Maarten van in Oxford Art Online,” 2/5/09.
www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide. “Jan van Scorel,” 1/22/09.
www.royalcollection.org.uk/eGallery. “Jonah under his Gourd, Marten van Heemskerck,” 1/22/09.
www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/noro/hd_noro.htm. “Thematic Essay: Dutch and Flemish Artists in Rome, 1500-1600,” 1/22/09.
James Hall. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. Harper & Row, Publishers, 1974.