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)
3In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
8 Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. 9Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14Behold, thou hast driven me this day away from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.” 15Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him. 16Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden.