Cain killing Abel by Niccolò Tornioli

Niccolò Tornioli

Cain killing Abel, 1622–51, Oil on canvas, 292 x 196 cm, Galleria Spada, Rome, Bridgeman Images

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Offering His Back to the Smiter

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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)

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