The Sundays before the Nativity feast (Christmas) are dedicated to the Holy Forefathers and Ancestors of Jesus Christ. Among all the Old Testament Saints commemorated on these days, Abraham is perhaps the supreme example, being the common patriarch of Judaism (as the founding father of the Covenant between man and God) and Christianity (being seen as the prototype of all believers). This patriarchal image of Abraham has influenced his representation in iconography, and has resulted in many images – in the east and west – of “the Bosom (or Embrace) of Abraham“.
The bosom of Abraham is an image used to refer to a place of comfort for the reposed, found in Judaic, and subsequently Christian, literature. In most religions, even if only symbolically, Paradise is referred to in terms of joyous feasting with all the other righteous. Among the Jews around the time of Jesus, it was normal to eat reclining on the left elbow on couches, with the right arm at liberty to eat. As couches were often shared one person would naturally recline “in the bosom” of the person to his left. It was considered a mark of honour to recline in the bosom of the master of a feast (c.f. John 13:23). Therefore, to be in the bosom of Abraham – the father of all the faithful – is to be in a particularly favourable place in the “feast” of the afterlife. The most well-known reference to the bosom of Abraham comes when Jesus tells the story of the “Rich man and Lazarus”, where the beggar ends up in Abraham’s bosom whilst the rich man is in hell (Luke 16:19-31).
Most iconographic representations of Abraham’s bosom in the East, then, are shown in the context of paradise. They show this place of the afterlife quite literally, with numberless child-like souls (c.a. Matt 18:3) nestling in Abraham’s chest, covered partially by his robe. He may also be holding out a sheet which supports the souls. As it is an image of paradise, Abraham is shown as part of a larger picture – most commonly as a small part of a composition of the Last Judgement. Abraham’s bosom can also be found in the bottom corner of the All Saints icon. Here too, though, the image being shown is that of paradise, indicated by the luscious trees in the background (in this late 18th century Russian example, the trees are native “Christmas trees” which would be recognizable to the locals).
More often than not, Abraham is shown with two other patriarchs: his son, Isaac and his grandson, Jacob (renamed Israel in the Old Testament narrative). They are usually shown on either side of Abraham, all seated as befitting a person of honour; sometimes they are also shown “nursing” small souls in their breasts. Jacob might have 12 small men in his breast, indicating the 12 sons – and tribes – of Israel. To include Isaac and Jacob in this image of paradise is no mystery: Jesus also includes the three patriarchs in His images of paradise: “And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven…” (Matt 8:11; emphasis mine). “Sitting down” once again suggests paradise as being in a place of honour (i.e. reclining on the breast of the patriarchs) at a great feast.
As Jesus Christ’ earthly line is traced back through Jacob, Isaac and Abraham. The three are often considered together in the hymns of the Church:
“Let us venerate the greatest of the Fathers: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; for in taking flesh of the Virgin from their line, Christ has been manifested as the Mighty God!” (Ode 4, Canon of the Fathers at Matins)
“… for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were the foundation of the prophets…” (Ode 9, ibid.)
“O Sion, city of our God, lift up your voice and celebrate the memory of the Fathers, honoring Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…” (Stichera for the Fathers at Lauds)
The hymns of the Church even present us with the image of all three Patriarchs in paradise, with the saved righteous (and the Mother of God):
“O Virgin, contemplating the bright splendour of your conception, Abraham, the friend of God, together with Isaac, and Jacob, rejoices with the choir of chosen holy ones…” (Ikos from Canon of the Fathers at Matins)
Clearly the images of young souls reclining in the bosom of Abraham are symbolic, as are related images of feasting in paradise with the Three Patriarchs. However, the popularity of the image is precisely because of its “earthiness”. The image was used by Jesus in His teachings, after all: God in the flesh here to tell us ‘fleshy’ stories in order to lead us to Heaven. It is not unsurprising that a very early depiction of Abraham’s bosom (6th century) can be found in the Syrian Monastery in Egypt. As mentioned in another post on the Milk-Giver icon, this monastery was established by monks fleeing the Julian heresy which denied the corruptibility (i.e. human-ness) of Christ’s body before His Resurrection. As well as frescoes showing the Mother of God breast-feeding Jesus, we also find very intimate images of the righteous in Abraham’s bosom:
Here the child-like souls of the righteous are not only feasting with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; they’re not only reclining on the breasts of the patriarchs; they are being hand-fed by them!
“Lord of the living and the dead, the immortal King and Risen Christ, our true God, through the intercessions of… the holy and glorious forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… place the soul of His servants, departed from us, in the dwelling place of the righteous; give rest to them in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and number them among the saints and have mercy on us, as a good God who loves mankind.” (from the dismissal at the Memorial Service)