Historians of Netherlandish Art Conference, Session: "Divine Presence: Representing Angels and God in Dutch and Flemish Art, c. 1575-1700." May 26th, 2018.
Soon after his residence in Rembrandt’s workshop (ca. 1636−40), or perhaps just before his departure to pursue an independent career, Ferdinand Bol took up the subject of the angel appearing at Gideon’s sacrifice (Judges 6: 20-23), first in a painting of ca.1640 and shortly thereafter in an etching of about 1641. The angel appears to Gideon to tell him he must fight against Israel's enemies the Midianites and preserve the worship of Yahweh, but Gideon demands proof that the messenger is an angel of God. Bol’s two interpolations are simple compositions which portray the act of the angel, who gently touches Gideon's sacrifice with a rod to miraculously set it ablaze, proving that he is the Lord’s messenger. Both figures of Gideon are indebted to representations of Tobias in Rembrandt’s painted and etched versions of The Departure of the Angel from Tobit’s Family; but this borrowing is more than just an homage to Bol’s master. The recoiling figures overcome by the sight of a divine messenger are used by Bol to invoke a moment of great significance in the Gideon narrative, when the hero reacts in dire fear for his life, since he had seen God face to face. In Bol’s painted version, which is calmer and more peaceful than the etched image, Gideon has already heard the Lord reassure him, ‘Peace be unto thee; fear not: thou shalt not die’ (Judges 6: 23). Bol’s painted angel is distinctive as an angel of the Lord. The figure is decidedly more ethereal than the earthly winged angels in Gerbrand van den Eeckhout’s four paintings between 1640 and 1646 depicting Gideon and the angel. Statenbijbel commentaries that speak of God’s repeated testing and saving of his people from idolatry through heavenly appearances; the writings of John Calvin that emphasize God's ‘covenanting with us’ in Gideon; and a Dutch pamphlet of 1637 that bemoaned the fact that ongoing military conflicts with Spain no longer had anything to do with religious faith, offer insights on the meaning and timeliness of the Old Testament subject.