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'The Bosom of Abraham' (Luke 16:22): Father Abraham in the Visual Imagination

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image of Biblical Interpretation

The phrase 'in the bosom of Abraham' occurs just once in the Bible (Lk. 16:22) and yet has become one of the most powerful and intriguing visual metaphors in the entire repertoire of Christian iconography. As the focal point of the parable of Dives and Lazarus, it suggests a haven of protection and security to which all the (male) characters in the story aspire. The Greek term κóλπoς, 'bosom,' is an ambiguous term that can be applied as much to a female figure as a male and indeed Abraham is often represented as if he were 'mother of all nations' rather than, or as well as, father. The iconography associated with the image of Abraham's bosom is both extensive and complex, especially during the period of the Middle Ages, but in this article, I select a range of representative examples to illustrate how artists and iconographers appealed to other biblical texts to help illuminate the meaning and significance of the phrase in Luke: in particular, the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22; the infancy narrative of Luke including the presentation in the temple (Luke 1-2), and the woman who gives birth in Revelation 12. In interpreting the image, artists frequently followed the direction of the exegetes and Church Fathers but this does not seem always to have been the case, especially when it came to harmonizing the contrasting images of Abraham as sacrificial father of Isaac and protective father of Lazarus. Contrary to many biblical commentators, the iconographical tradition largely ignores any suggestion that the bosom of Abraham signifies Lazarus reclining at a heavenly banquet next to Abraham, preferring instead to concentrate on the challenges posed in conveying the somewhat incongruous notion of Abraham, the most venerated of patriarchs, holding a naked and vulnerable child in his bosom.

Affiliations: 1: University of Wales, Lampeter


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