In the story of Abraham, as related in our Bible, we read of the wandering and adventurous life of the patriarch as he moved from place to place. In process of time he became "very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold." He was as brave as he was industrious. When Lot, his brother's son, who dwelt in Sodom, was taken captive by some foreign kings who had conquered the king of Sodom, Abraham armed his large company of servants and went to the rescue. He recovered not only his nephew, but all the booty which the victors had taken. Moreover, Abraham was a man of vision as well as of action, a man who feared God and sought righteousness.

In his old age he was living with his aged wife Sarah on the plains of Mamre. "He sat in the tent door in the heat of the day," the story goes on,[1] "and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, and said, 'My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: and I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant.' And they said, 'So do, as thou hast said.'

[1] Genesis, chapter xviii., verses 1-8.

"And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, 'Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth.' And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetcht a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it. And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat."

In the picture we see Abraham welcoming his strange visitors in front of his simple dwelling-place. He is dressed in Oriental robes and bows himself to the ground after the custom of the Eastern people, who are noted for their courtesy. He offers hospitality not as a favor to his guests, but as a privilege which he craves from them. His, not theirs, is the honor, he seems to say.

The three angels have a mysterious air. They are in human form, and yet they are unlike ordinary visitors. Their attitudes, the flowing of the robes, their gestures, all denote something unusual. While the three stand with outstretched hands as if encouraging and blessing their host, Sarah peeps through the open door and listens to the talk. A country landscape, such as may be seen in the vineyards of Italy, stretches away in the distance. Raphael never traveled outside his own country, and painted only such landscapes as were familiar to him.

Vatican Palace, Rome

The picture was intended as an illustration of the Bible. In the days when Raphael was painting, though the art of printing had been invented, only scholars and learned men could read books, and those which were printed were rarely in the language which the people spoke. Men and women did indeed hear stories read out of the Bible, but they knew these stories chiefly from paintings, and from carvings in wood and stone. Churches and monasteries, palaces and public halls, were adorned with fresco paintings, and these storied walls formed the people's literature.

Now the Pope, Leo the Tenth, employed Raphael to decorate parts of the Vatican. The Vatican was the palace of the Popes in Rome, and one of the open courts of the palace had a gallery or Loggia, as it is called, built about its three sides. Raphael caused to be painted on the walls of this gallery festoons of flowers and fruit and sometimes animals, all surrounded and entwined with graceful ornaments. But it was the vaulted ceiling of the gallery that he treated with the greatest care. He made a great series of pictures from scenes in the Old Testament, and some from the New, and his pupils painted these upon the ceiling, so that it came to be known popularly as "Raphael's Bible."

The ceiling is not flat, and it does not stretch without break, but the gallery is like a succession of arched porches, and the ceiling of each is divided into panels, sloping in four directions, with a flat panel in the centre. These panels are filled with charming pictures which you can see by standing with your head thrown back.

Raphael's Bible begins with the creation of the world; then follow the history of Adam and Eve, and Noah and the deluge; in the fourth section is the story of Abraham told in four compositions. Thus, besides this picture of Abraham and the Three Angels, there is the scene where Lot and his family are fleeing from Sodom, and his wife is turned into a pillar of salt. There is also the meeting of Abraham and Melchisedec (after Abraham's rescue of Lot), and a picture of God promising a long line of descendants to Abraham.

In this open gallery the people of Rome could walk and read the Bible in a succession of pictures. Since these and similar pictures and statues and carvings were everywhere, men, women, and children read them as they would read books, and a popular painter was like a popular story-teller nowadays.