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)
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.