Scala/Art Resource, New York, NY

The marble sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (compare with previous photo), a Roman prefect who died in 359 C.E., displays Christianity’s understanding of the near-sacrifice of Isaac. The detail, which shows the upper left scene on the sarcophagus, depicts the story of how God tested Abraham by ordering him to sacrifice his son Isaac on Moriah. Abraham stands with the knife (now broken off) in hand, prepared to follow God’s command. Isaac kneels in front of the altar. A servant stands at right, and the ram, which Abraham will sacrifice in Isaac’s place, is at left.

Early Christian images of the story frequently occur in funerary contexts—in catacombs and on sarcophagi. The highly popular scene often appears among other images depicting salvation and deliverance from death, as, for example, on this sarcophagus, which includes a panel showing Daniel in the lion’s den (lower register, second from right).

In the accompanying article, Robin Jensen examines the different approaches Jews and Christians have taken to the story from Genesis 22 and how those approaches are reflected in art. Many elements are common to both religious traditions, but the story has been used for very different purposes. In Jewish tradition, Isaac’s release signifies that God will have mercy on his people, while Christians interpret Isaac as prefiguring Jesus.