Today we are looking at another column, and like the one yesterday, it might be made from Rosso di Verona, although seeing it like this, I doubt it. It’s a deeper red, for one thing, and it has dark, almost black veins in it. Not only that: it has a very high shine, and Rosso di Verona cannot be polished so finely. The light reflecting off the column appears as vertical white lines, and, apart from the degree of polish, the highlights tell us that, miraculously, the column is not worn or eroded. Despite the change and decay we see all around, it is perfectly smooth and shiny, and, judging by the way in which the artist has painted the reflections, almost perfectly cylindrical.
But that’s not what interests me today, apart from the fact that it implies that there is something special about this column: why has it survived so well? Why is our attention drawn towards it? I’m assuming the intention is, in turn, to draw our attention towards the grey capital at the top. This capital is historiated – by which I mean it is decorated with figures that are significant in some way, rather than being purely, well, decorative. Four figures are visible. Directly above the brightest highlight on the column is a kneeling person, facing to the right with their hands raised in prayer. Behind them (to our left) and directly above the less prominent highlight on the column is a standing figure with its legs far apart. One hand – the left – is on the kneeling person’s shoulder, and the other is raised in the air. A slightly curved line is carved just below the top of the capital – a sword, which the standing figure is holding. But the raised arm is grasped firmly by the hand of a third figure, round to the left, and in the shadows. This figure seems surprisingly high up, and its legs curve round underneath it, rather than touching the ground. Sketched in at the very top left you might just be able to decipher a wing: it is an angel. And then, at the base of the capital, on the far right, is a small creature. Again, it is above one of the highlights on the column, a sign that the column – and the light reflecting off it – are there to draw our attention to these figures. This is the story of Abraham and Isaac, told in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 22:1-13:
And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together. And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.
For Christians, this story, telling of Abraham’s decision to sacrifice his ‘only son Isaac’ because of his love for God, was seen as a pre-figuring God the Father’s decision to sacrifice his only begotten son, Jesus, because of his love for humankind. The interpretation gains strength from the phrase, ‘God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering’, as Jesus was greeted by John the Baptist with the words, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). The inclusion of this relief sculpture, with Isaac kneeling in prayer, Abraham’s arm raised and ready to strike, the angel preventing him, and the ram, caught in a thicket (or so we must imagine), to the right, reminds us that Jesus, the little baby depicted at the base of the column, was born to die; that he was the Messiah prophesied in the Jewish scriptures; and that we are now at the beginning of the ‘new order’. It’s a lot of weight for a small carving to bear, but that is what makes this column so special: its weight-bearing capacity – whether that is physical or allegorical.