As Grains of Sand

This painting, depicting an unspecified by scripture but plausible moment in the life of Sarah, gives the viewer a glimpse into the complex emotions of an infertile woman contemplating the unfulfilled promises and blessings in her life. Sarah sits quietly in the shade of her tent, gazing into the distance as kernels of grain sift through her hand. These kernels serve to symbolize both the divine promises made to her and Abraham concerning their innumerable posterity, and the time she doubtlessly felt slipping through her fingers as these promises were left unfulfilled day after day. Moving downward in the frame, there is a luscious spread of food representing the relative comfort and wealth she experienced as the wife of a well-established herdsman and farmer. But even this fruitful bounty mocks her barrenness, especially the taunting succulence of a recently opened pomegranate—a fruit synonymous with fertility in many cultures. The jug of olive oil alludes to both her sanctified status as matriarch and her royal name and lineage. This is echoed as well by the blue of her robes. In the Rabbinic tradition, blue is the color of heaven and royalty.

Moving deeper into the frame we see the heavily pregnant form of Hagar in the distance. She stares with contempt towards Sarah, who although seemingly unaware of the gaze, is no doubt constantly aware of the juxtaposition between Hagar’s fertility and her infertility. The complexity of their relationship is alluded to by the basket of grain in Hagar’s hand. As the surrogate mother, she harvested and bore the seed, which was ultimately to be delivered to the hand of Sarah. While the painting primarily emphasizes the psychological, or interior state of Sarah, it gives the viewer a glimpse into the challenges placed on women both inside and outside of the “tent” of infertility and the pain, discontent, and division this divide can cause.

“I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea-shore.”
                                                                                          —Genesis 22:17