Art Guide - February 2019

Columban - Catholic Calendar Art Guide - January 2019  

Abraham banishes Hagar 1657 (oil on canvas) Guercino (1591-1666)

The story familiar from Genesis of how Abraham took his wife Sarah’s young Egyptian slave Hagar as his mistress became a popular subject for artists in the seventeenth century. Sarah, we learn had not been able to bear children, so she convinced Abraham to have a child with her maid Hagar. The child Hagar bore was named Ishmael. Abraham loved his son but Sarah came to resent Hagar. Some years later Sarah too became pregnant and bore a son named Isaac. Fearing that her own son would be forced to share his inheritance with Ishmael, Sarah demanded that Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael. Guercino depicts this moment, the tension and drama of the narrative revealed in the figures gestures and facial expressions. Abraham dominates the scene. His commanding gestures make clear that Hagar and Ishmael must leave. Hagar’s tearful gaze directed not at Abraham but at Sarah signals Hagar’s vulnerability and powerlessness. Sarah, her back turned from the distraught mother and child, becomes an enigmatic presence in the drama. The older woman’s pose hints at Sarah’s contempt for the younger woman. Yet as we learn Hagar and Ishmael survive being caste out into the desert. God reveals himself to Hagar and promises that her son will become the leader of a nation. As so often in stories from the Hebrew scripture, this tale reminds us how like Abraham and Sarah we forget to trust in God’s promises.

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