Cain and Abel
Offering His Back to the Smiter
Commentary by Nicholas Cranfield
The Oratorian art collector Virgilio Spada (1596–1662) became patron of the Sienese artist Niccolò Tornioli soon after he moved to Rome in 1635. It was under Spada’s patronage that Tornioli painted this version of the fratricide (a subject which he depicted on at least three occasions). It was made for the presbytery of the Barnabite church of San Paolo in the papal city of Bologna in 1643. Its scale and furious violence intentionally correspond to the sculptural group of the beheading of St Paul that Alessandro Algardi completed for the high altar of the same church at the same time.
Cain and Abel are represented larger than life-size. Tornioli seems to be suggesting by this that the first generation of Adam was a noble race of giants. Despite being a killer, Cain retains a certain grandeur of stature; he is favoured by God as the founder of the first city on earth, and is later able to negotiate with God (Genesis 4:13–16).
We do not get to see the victim’s face as he lies on his right side, his left arm forcefully restrained by his killer. The wicked one, with tousled hair and upraised arm, levels a savage jawbone with which he will mercilessly bludgeon his brother. Abel is compliant and accepting of his death, a true prototype of Christ’s willingness at Calvary.
At least Virgilio Spada seems to have had cordial relations with his own elder brother, the noted art collector Cardinal Bernardino Spada (1594–1661). And both brothers, living in early seventeenth-century Rome, would have known very well Origen’s Exhortation to Martyrdom in which he declared that ‘what was said of Abel, when he was slain by the wicked murderer Cain, is suitable for all whose blood has been shed wickedly’ (Exhortation to Martyrdom, 50). This Abel was a fitting presence in a setting where Christ’s innocent sacrifice was continually being pleaded in the Mass, and in a church dedicated to St Paul, whose death was that of a martyr.
Greer, Rowan A. 1979. Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, and Selected Works, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press)
Weston, Giulia Martina. 2016. Niccolò Tornioli (1606–1651): Art and Patronage in Baroque Rome (Rome: Artemide)
A Tale of Two Altars
Commentary by Nicholas Cranfield
In 1541, Giorgio Vasari (1511–74) arrived in Venice to decorate a temporary theatre for a play by his fellow Tuscan, Pietro Aretino. Other commissions quickly followed, including one from the Augustinian canons of Santo Spirito in Isola, on one of the remote islands in the Venetian lagoon. They asked Vasari to design three large ceiling paintings which would accompany a new altarpiece depicting the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost by Titian (who was some twenty years Vasari’s senior).
Vasari left Venice without fulfilling the commission, and Titian stepped in to complete it. (Later, in 1656 the three paintings were incorporated in the sacristy ceiling of Santa Maria della Salute.)
All three of the ceiling paintings play with contrasts between faces seen and faces unseen. In two it is the victim’s face that is presented. Abraham turns away from us to look skywards at the angel as the boy Isaac looks piteously out at us from the top of the pyre; David’s upraised prayerful hands obscure his face while Goliath’s severed head is angled in our direction. But in Cain and Abel, it is Abel whose face we cannot see. Here, Titian captures something of the violent anonymity of victimhood.
Cain—this ‘first disciple of the Devil’ as St Basil called him (Reau 1956: 96)—has already bludgeoned Abel and is about to kick him over the edge of a rocky ledge, while bringing down a second blow on him. Abel’s head wound, with blood pouring out over his tousled hair, cries out to the viewer for justice.
It was only from the thirteenth century onwards that artists in the Western tradition began to depict the altars that Cain and Abel were presumed to have constructed (ibid 1956: 94)—though there is no specific mention of altars in Genesis 4. Perhaps this reflected the enhanced sacerdotal authority of a sacrificing priesthood.
The two stone votive altars in this painting intensify the work’s dramatic effect. Behind the brothers a black cloud of smoke swirls skyward from Cain’s rejected offering, threatening to engulf him, while the pure flame of Abel’s offering rises from a more clearly visible altar in the right foreground. Abel’s left hand reaches towards it in vain, as if making a last appeal to God.
Biadene, Susanna and Mary Yakush. 1990. Titian Prince of Painters (Venice: Marsilio Editori), pp. 255–61
Campbell, Stephen J. 2019. The Endless Periphery Toward a Geopolitics of Art in Lorenzo Lotto’s Italy (Chicago: Chicago University Press), pp. 246–49
Puttfarken, Thomas. 2005. Titian and Tragic Painting (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 101, 103
Reau, Louis. 1956. Iconographie de l’Art Chrétien, vol. 2 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France)
A Herculean Sin
Commentary by Nicholas Cranfield
The Bible is silent on the means that Cain used to kill Abel but artists variously depicted a branch from the tree of life, an axe, shovel, stone, baton, or club as the murder weapon—for biblical commentators were convinced that the death was vicious: ‘It was such a death, whereby Abel’s blood was abundantly shedd, and that in many places. For the word is in the plural vox sanginum [sic], the voice of his bloodes’, wrote Andrew Willet in 1605 (1605: 60).
The Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens was born in religious exile in Germany to a Calvinist father and a Roman Catholic mother (in whose faith he would be brought up). His father had fled the Spanish Netherlands to escape persecution for his beliefs. In the turbulent years of the Counter-Reformation, Rubens may well have drawn upon his experiences of Europe’s violent divisions to give his treatment of the Cain and Abel narrative its extreme vehemence.
He portrays Cain as an angry ‘Hercules’. Following Jan van Eyck’s 1436 Madonna and Child (where the murder appears as a sculpted detail on the armrest of the Throne of Mercy), Rubens depicts an ass’s jawbone as the instrument.
The two protagonists are portrayed as men of his own epoch: rough, muscled woodsmen who occupy the whole canvas. Cain rages over his brother, who is rendered yet more vulnerable by his cloak having fallen away so that he is almost naked. Both contorted bodies could be the work of Michelangelo, the muscularity of whose work Rubens would have been able to admire when he lived in Rome.
The siblings are illuminated by the flames of Abel’s sacrifice on the altar behind them which burns brightly under the louring sky. Cain has dragged his brother to the side of the altar on which his own offering of first fruits has failed to find favour with God (Genesis 4:5). Rather than depict Abel as a resigned martyr for faith, Rubens paints the anguish of betrayal, surprise, and shocked disbelief.
Night hovers over them both. This will allow Cain to dissemble that he does not know where his brother is when he is later challenged by God (Genesis 4:9)—a lie that identifies him as a true son of his father (Genesis 3:9–10).
Willet, Andrew. 1605. Hexapla in Genesin: that is, a sixfold commentarie upon Genesis (London)
Niccolò Tornioli :
Cain killing Abel, 1622–51 , Oil on canvas
Cain and Abel, 1542–44 , Oil on canvas
Peter Paul Rubens :
Cain slaying Abel, 1608–09 , Oil on panel
The First Fratricide
Comparative commentary by Nicholas Cranfield
Many readers may struggle with how quickly a good creation is shown to fall from grace in the course of the first chapters of Genesis, and with the rapidity of sin’s subsequent proliferation. They may even question God’s role in both permitting and punishing these transgressions. No sooner has God created Adam and Eve than sin enters the world.
Thrown out of paradise into a life of hardship, our first parents then produce two sons, Cain and his younger brother Abel, one of whom becomes fratricidal. Human beings’ revolt against their creator leads to the revolt of human against fellow human; murder confirms the fallen state of our being and in turn Cain is later killed by his kinsman, Lamech (Genesis 4:23). The narrative is almost exactly rehearsed in the Qur’an (Surah Al-Ma'idah 5:27–31).
The Bible is no stranger to sibling rivalries; they scar its pages. The twin Esau is duped out of his inheritance by Jacob (Genesis 28) and the creation of the Golden Calf strains the relationship between Moses and Aaron, exposing a fault-line in leadership (Exodus 32). Apocryphal writers scapegoated the half-brother Ishmael for quarrelling with Isaac, causing Hagar’s expulsion (Genesis 21:8–14). Joseph is hated and abused by his eleven brothers (Genesis 37:12–28) and Judah, for all his failings, finds favour with God only when he parts from his brothers (Genesis 38).
Sometimes rivalry becomes murder. The Bible contains several examples of this too. The violent death of the shepherd Abel at his brother’s hands is, in other words, far from the only instance of fratricide in the Bible.
Nevertheless, it is the first, and from the early medieval period was certainly the most commonly depicted. (Rare are those who portray the slaughter of Abimelech’s seventy kinsmen (Judges 9:1–6); Absalom devising his brother Amnon’s death (2 Samuel 13:28–29); wise Solomon putting Adonijah to the sword to seize the throne (1 Kings 2:24–25); or King Jehoram slaughtering all of his brothers to ensure his own rule (2 Chronicles 21:4).)
Christians have had to ask whether this biblical story of a righteous brother murdered by a sinful brother is better understood as a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ offered in the Mass, or an object lesson in the necessity of faith over works.
The writer of Hebrews takes up Abel as the first of many heroes who—though killed—is still speaking through faith (Hebrews 11:1–4). Although faith is not made explicit as the motive for Abel’s sacrifice in Genesis, it may be surmised from God’s pleasure in it (Genesis 4:4). And it is certain that for Protestant writers and preachers, the sacrifice of Abel came to be viewed through the lens of Hebrews and its emphasis on faith.
The rhetoric could readily be turned into anti-Catholic propaganda. Cain’s fratricide became much talked up as a type of how the first-born (Rome) suppressed the chosen ones of God (Protestantism). When John Calvin preached a sermon on this passage in October 1559, many of his auditors in Geneva would have recalled the notorious murder of a Protestant convert, Juan Diaz, by his twin brother Alfonso in March 1546.
Half a century later, the influential English Puritan preacher William Perkins (d.1602) explicitly identified Cain with a Romish belief that could only be countered by Abel’s justification by faith alone (Perkins 1607: 19) and it was for similar reasons that Henry Ainsworth (d.1622) reminded his readers that Cain was ‘that wicked one, I Ioh.3. 12 that is of the Divil’ (Ainsworth 1616, Sig Ev).
It was left to Catholic artists to celebrate the narrative of an unblemished sacrifice (and innocent victimhood) as a prefiguration of that of Christ’s crucifixion. Although it is not known for whom Peter Paul Rubens painted his work, its altar-flames emphasize the element of sacrifice and suggest that, like the Niccolò Tornioli, it is more than likely to have been a public altarpiece offering a prototype for Christ’s death at Golgotha.
Titian’s Cain and Abel was painted for a ceiling and not as an altarpiece, but its juxtaposition with the two other works in the series—The Sacrifice of Isaac and David and Goliath—indicate that sacrifice was its central theme. All three of these Old Testament episodes were read in Christian tradition as prefiguring aspects of the sacrifice of Christ.
The sacrificed Abel points to the Jesus who, when chastising the Pharisees for their blind teachings, appealed to ‘all the righteous blood shed on earth’ (Matthew 23:35) as a judgement on human sin. Jesus’s own blood would soon be added to this tally. But as with Abel’s sacrifice, the blood shed on the cross would be an offering for which God has ‘regard’ (Genesis 4:4).
Ainsworth, Henry. 1616. Commentarie on the Pentateuch, Psalms and Song of Solomon (London)
Engammare, Max (ed.). 2000. Jean Calvin sermons sur la Genèse (2 vols) (Neukirchen Neukirchen, Neukircher Verlag)
Perkins, William. 1607. A clowd of faithfull witnesses, leading to the heavenly Canaan: or A commentarie upon the 11 chapter to the Hebrewes, preached in Cambridge (London)