Cain slaying Abel by Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens

Cain slaying Abel, 1608–09, Oil on panel, 131.2 x 94.2 cm, The Courtauld Gallery, London; Seilern, Antoine (Count); bequest; 1978, P.1978.PG.353, Bridgeman Images

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A Herculean Sin

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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)

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