The Hospitality of Abraham

5th century
Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

The upper register portrays Genesis 18:2 – when Abraham saw the three men "he ran to meet them from the door of his tent, and adored down to the ground." The artist goes to some lengths to make the viewer realize that the men Abraham is approaching represent the Trinity. All three have identical haloes, togas, and hair. The center figure radiates light from within a mandorla, and his feet do not touch the ground.

On the left in the lower register, Abraham has Sarah bake loaves for the visitors. On the right, he brings them a roasted calf. The background for the figure of Abraham and Sarah is relatively naturalistic, whereas the ground behind the visitors is all gold, again emphasizing that despite what his eyes show him Abraham is entertaining God himself.

The liturgical character of the calf is suggested by the parallel phrasing between Genesis 18:7, where Abraham ad armentum cucurrit, et tulit inde vitulum tenerrimum et optimum ("ran to the herd and took a tender and perfect calf") and Leviticus 9:2, where Moses tells Aaron tolle de armento vitulum pro peccato et arietem in holocaustum utrumque inmaculatos et offer illos coram Domino ("take from the herd a calf as a sin offering and a goat as a holocaust, each immaculate, and offer them to the Lord").

Liturgy is further suggested by the structure behind Sarah. In Genesis 18:1 it is simply a tabernaculum or "tent." But the mosaic presents it so as to remind the viewer of both a Christian church and the Jerusalem Temple. Like the Temple in the basilica's apsidal arch a few feet away, the structure has a roof of tuft-like tiles and a pair of tied-back curtains at the door. But like a church, it has a cross in the pediment.

At the feet of the three visitors, beneath the table, is the basin of water that Abraham provided so they could wash their feet.

This is part of the extensive series of Old Testament scenes portrayed in mosaics along the two walls of the nave. Follow this link for links to the others.

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More of The Trinity
More of Abraham

Photographed at the basilica by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.