Abraham and Sarah were severely tried by God: He had promised them a son, but the conception was so long delayed that they had long ago abandoned hope of having children. Only when they were both at an advanced age was Isaac born. But
the trial was not yet over. Abraham was ordered by God to go into the mountains and there sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham obeyed. For three days he travelled with Isaac and two servants to the place that God had named. There he built an
altar, laid wood on it, bound Isaac, laid him on the altar, and took the knife to slay him. But there came a voice from heaven which stopped him: Abraham had fully proved his obedience to the Lord's command. Abraham saw a ram in the
thicket, and sacrificed it in place of Isaac.
Rembrandt has rendered the event even more dramatically than it is written in the Bible; not only the voice of an angel restrains Abraham, but the angel himself seizes Abraham's hand so that he lets the knife fall to the ground. Particularly
the way in which the knife is painted, falling in mid-air, has been widely admired.
Abraham's head is reminiscent of the old men Rembrandt drew and painted during his time in Leiden, with its high wrinkled forehead, tufts of grey hair, the long curly beard. But in other respects Rembrandt's work had changed much since
his Leiden days: he was now working on a large scale on a scene full of action, drama, movement, emotion. This is a sophisticated composition in which the body of Isaac bound fast in the foreground is linked logically to Abraham whose
hand pushes back Isaac's head. Abraham's gaze is directed towards the red-haired angel, in all its loveliness, bearing the message of deliverance. On the left is a distant vista, giving space for the falling knife and adding to the
emphasis upon it.
The light coming with the angel shines fully on the naked body of Isaac, and casts a heavy shadow on Abraham, but the parts of Abraham's body which are important for the story - his face and hands - are fully lit up by it. The shadow
is so deep that all the colour has gone from Abraham's green cloak: the green is only visible where it forms a background for the body of the naked boy.
Rembrandt's fascination with light, which he had already displayed in his earliest paintings, has here gained dramatic force. Such drama seems essentially un-Dutch, and Rembrandt must have made grateful use of his knowledge of
Italian art, gained primarily from the paintings of the Utrecht 'Caravaggists', who had been to Italy and had there become acquainted with the work of Caravaggio
, the great master of light and shade.