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)
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.