Opaque glass mosaic, designed by William Blake Richmond, executed by Messrs Powell of Whitefriars, completed by 1896
Abraham receiving three visitors is the theme of this mosaic. The bible does not relate whether the visitors were angels, though they were certainly messengers: one of them told the elderly Abraham that his wife Sarah would have a child when he would return next year. Like so many of the themes chosen by William Blake Richmond for his St Paul’s Cathedral cycle, this mosaic has predecessors in Byzantine mosaics. Richmond’s interpretation of the bible text is typical for the clerestory mosaics: narrative scenes are transformed to showcase one of the characters in particular, in this case Abraham, after whom the mosaic is named.
The scene is set upon a cartouche which appears to elaborate the theme of the beasts in strictly of the entablature further: rather than wild beasts, this cartouche shows two tabby cats, maybe kittens, chase birds.
Brief description: Abraham is depicted with a white beard, tunic and over-garment, seated facing the viewer, and looking back over his shoulder; behind him three young men in white with halos; in the background Abraham’s tent, underneath the scene is a rectangular mosaic cartouche depicting a symmetrical composition similar to the animal mosaics in the clerestory zone: around a vase two tigers, facing outwards, and birds are depicted among scrolling foliage, in contrast to the larger mosaics in the clerestory, the proportions of ornament and animals are reversed, giving this the feel of the depiction of miniature animals.
Genesis 18:1-10: “And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My lord, if I have found favour in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves, and after that you may pass on - since you have come to your servant. […]They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him.” (NRSV)
Browne 1896, pp. 13-14: “These spaces on the North side of the Choir represent the ancient world looking dimly forward into the future, with no limitation to Old Testament revelation. […] Passing to the western bay, still on the north side, the scene shewn on the east of the window is the appearance of the Lord to Abraham (Genesis xviii). The “three men” are prominent figures, and Sarah is seen in old age, looking out from here concealment, through the door of the tent, unseen by Abraham (verse 10).
Related work elsewhere: The Visitors of Abraham, mosaic, 5th century, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, Italy; The Heavenly Visitors and The Sacrifice of Isaac, mosaic, 6th century, San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy;
Literature and references: Browne 1896, p. 14.