King Melchizedech was a neighbor of Abraham and also "a priest of the Most High God." He celebrated Abraham's victory over Chodorlahomor with a sacrifice of bread and wine (Genesis 14:18-20), and Abraham then gave him a tenth of all he had. Melchizedech is also remembered in Psalm 110, "You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedech."
That verse is cited by the author of Hebrews, who made the ancient priest a type of Jesus Christ, the new high priest whose sacrifice takes away sin (7:1-28, 9:26). Subsequent Christian thought extended this typology to Abel's sacrifice of a lamb and Abraham's of his son Isaac, notably in the Roman Catholic liturgy, which has included language linking the sacrifice of the Mass with those of Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedech since the 4th century.1
The 6th-century mosaic shown above references this typology by juxtaposing Melchizedech's sacrifice with Abel's and putting both at a table resembling a Christian altar. A similar 7th-century mosaic adds Abraham and Isaac to the altar scene. In an 11th-century portable altar, the lower edge features the sacrifice of Isaac; the middle, figures of Melchizedech and Aaron; and the upper edge, two Christian bishops. The priest saying Mass is thus kept mindful of the convergence between his own actions, the Old Testament sacrifices, and "the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Hebrews 10:10). And a 19th-century altarpiece makes the same point by including Melchizedech among four Old Testament figures flanking the Crucifixion, which their sacrifices are believed to have prefigured.
This typology also informs more literal images of Melchizedech's sacrifice – that is, those that follow the narrative in Genesis. In the first image at right Abraham arrives with his army as Melchizedech prepares for the sacrifice with a basket of bread and a krater of wine; the typology is referenced by the figure of Christ above blessing the sacrifice. In the second, Tiepolo makes the sacrifice look much like a contemporary Mass: Standing before a full-size altar with a linen cloth, Melchizedech raises the bread just as a Catholic priest would elevate the host, while Abraham kneels in adoration.
The third picture at right shows a neo-Gothic relief on a German altar. The typology has been emphasized by the unusual addition of Isaac at Abraham's feet. The low stone altar is a kind commonly seen in earlier medieval images of this episode. As in the Tiepolo and many other images, Abraham is dressed as a warrior. In another neo-Gothic work, the bread on the altar is one of five loaves brought by a boy kneeling behind Melchizedech, a reference to the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes and Jesus' own typological explanation of that miracle (John 6:5-15, 27-34).
A mosaic in Cefalù, Sicily, deepens the typology by returning to those assurances in Hebrews that Jesus' sacrifice takes away sin, enlisting a set of Old Testament prophecies about the salvation of Israel to suggest that the Christian faithful are "raised up on the third day" with Christ.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University
Mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna. See the description page.