The Sacrifice of Isaac

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Tiepolo, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1729
If any one Tiepolo painting could represent the painter's work as a whole, The Sacrifice of Isaac could be it.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo captures a biblical story in which God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to test his faith.  When Abraham consents and prepares to strike the fatal blow, an angel descends from the heavens to stop him, declaring that he has proven his loyalty to God's word, sending a bull for the ritual instead.  The painting, like the story, crackles with emotion and power.

Stylistically, The Sacrifice of Isaac represents something unique.  Marking his departure from his master Gregorio Lazzarini's dark colors, Tiepolo creates an airy but tense scene.  He renders his subjects from an unusual perspective, from slightly below to add physical depth and drama.  The subjects' angular limbs and billowing robes all hint at movement and energy.  Notice the mirrored positions of the angel's and Abraham's arms, the look of initial mistrust and then realization and relief in the father's eyes.  A ray of unearthly light creates a line through the sky matching the lean of the humans' bodies and the tree in the background, as though the figures were bending to their creator.

The Sacrifice of Isaac typifies Tiepolo's work with its biblical narrative and lighthearted hues juxtaposed with serious subject matter.  Tiepolo depicts God as neither loving nor malevolent but powerful and omniscient, and he asks the viewer to judge God's nature for himself.  This Enlightenment era line of thinking challenges religion and society.  As Descartes wrote, "...Never has my intention been more than to try to reform my own ideas, and rebuild them on foundations that would be wholly mine...The decision to abandon all one's preconceived notions is not an example for all to follow..."

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