Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Cain & Abel 4

And now I wrap up my look at art representations of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, history's first recorded murder.

First, consider this picture by Bartolomeo Manfredi. In this version, the brothers look like a couple of scuffling teenagers, a wrestling game gone out of control. Message: "It's always fun until somebody gets his brains bashed in." The unusual thing about this picture is that Cain looks just as youthful and clean-cut as his unfortunate brother. Evil can take many forms.

In this Byzantine representation, both Cain and Abel appear to be smiling while one is smiting the other. How gruesome! Abel is depicted as a martyred saint who is all but joyful to lose his life for the Lord. What's really creepy is the beatific smile Cain wears while he sends his brother into eternity. The message almost seems to be: "Nothing says love like a dent in the skull."

Bacchiacca, a.k.a. Francesco Ubertini, painted this version, in which there appear to be witnesses - servants perhaps? - to the crime. They don't seem terribly concerned. But of course, God sees the whole thing, and he looks furious about it. Cain seems quite unashamed to take a swing at Abel's head in front of a live audience. The contrast between the extremely manly Cain and the rather androgynous Abel suggests a disturbing subtext of gay-bashing here. The bottle on the ground also suggests that the demon rum had something to do with Cain's rage. Message: "Beware bad company." Or maybe: "Think about who sees what you do!"

This French manuscript presents a "before and after" tableau. Not only are both brothers fully dressed (which is unusual enough), but they are both dressed in white! I suppose it just shows that the bad guys can dress like the good guys. Notice, however, which brother forgot to take his hat off in church. This is serious stuff. It leads directly to--what the heck?--a brutal beating with a handkerchief? No, wait, that's a bone. I don't know why, but this picture brings out the "sour grapes" theme of the story. Cain's sacrifice fizzled, and so he takes it out on the guy whose offering went all right.

This piece of sculpted ivory from Germany shows a possible move Cain might have used to hold Abel down while he pummeled him. The dog is an interesting touch. Whose side is it on? Is it going for Abel's foot, or Cain's thigh? Or is it maybe objecting to having its bone taken away? Message: "This is how dogs learned not to get between two fighting humans."

Jacopo Negretti gives us this poignant picture in which the fair brother appears to be struggling for his life while the dark brother subdues him. It makes you think: Poor Abel must have had an ugly view of that stick before it came down on him. Clearly, in Negretti's view, this crime took place in a blaze of passion, in contrast to Cain's rather tepid offering close by. It happened suddenly, right next to their altars. Cain was swift to avenge his own failure on his more successful brother; but look what he is losing. Is it my imagination, or does Abel seem to be trying to stop Cain as much for the other's sake as for his own?

Here is another Negretti on the same subject. This time Abel already seems to have been stunned by Cain's club, and is helpless to defend himself against the next blow. It looks like a powerful one, too, parallelling the volcanic fury of Abel's sacrifice in the background.

An anonymous Italian master painted this piece in which a beastly-looking Cain is about to deal his male-supermodel brother a death blow. The interesting thing in this picture is the unusual, not to say physically impossible, lighting effect. Even while shielding his face with his arm, Abel is brightly lit while, between him and the apparent light source, Cain glares down out of a deep shadow. This clearly symbolizes that God's favor shines on one brother, while the other has fallen into darkness.

I'm not sure what to make of Jack Levine's version of the story. Things seem to be happening so fast that the motion is blurred, and it seems to be rushing toward the viewer like a runaway bus. There is even a suggestion of shattering in this image, as if depicting the broken state of mankind from this moment onward.

Tintoretto's rendition strikes out at an interesting angle. It seems Cain has chosen his altar as the place for his brother's death - a death, in this instance, by stabbing. His reasoning might be that, if God preferred Abel's animal sacrifice to Cain's vegetable one, perhaps God will be even more pleased by a human sacrifice...eurgh.

Johann Karl Loth might have used the same models to do a picture of Jacob and Esau. Cain is big, blocky, and ruddy, like a BMOC looking down on a wimpy little college freshman and just beginning to realize that he took his frat initiation prank a little too far. On the other hand, it also looks like Cain is willing to keep pounding on Abel even after the latter is down for the count. Message: "There is no mercy in anger."

John Sell Cotman gives the scene a melodramatic, cover-of-a-sci-fi-novel look, with Abel looking extremely dead, and the lightning giving a vivid demonstration of God's anger. An almost heroic-looking Cain seems to be getting the message: "Wake up and think about what you're doing!" Oops. Too late.

Lorenzo Ghiberti's bronze relief portrays Cain in the most cowardly possible light: not only hitting Abel when he is down, but hitting him from behind! Message: "Beating people up doesn't make you a big man."

Here is Peter Paul Rubens's (b. 1577) interpretation of the original fratricide. Abel does seem to have some fight in him, but Cain makes it hard on him by gouging with one hand while bludgeoning with the other. What makes this painting interesting is Cain's choice of a jawbone as the murder weapon. This decision may have been influenced by the next painting by Andrea Schiavone (d. 1563), in which the subject is actually Samson slaying a Philistine. The imagery is strikingly similar, is it not? Even down to the fire in the background - which, in Schiavone's story, was merely a campfire; Rubens reinterprets it as an altar. But there's no getting around the jawbone thing. This might be considered plagiarism today, and it might have been considered homage then, but what I am considering is whether or not Rubens's decision to blur the line between Cain's crime and Samson's heroism was a deliberate statement about the morality of violence in any cause...

Here is Titian's depiction of "Cain taunting Abel." It wasn't enough to kill him; he also had to play with him, as a cat plays with a mouse. Cain kicks, stomps, and beats his brother, sending him tumbling down the mountainside, and going after him to finish him off. It's a terrifying scene. Once again, it makes you think about what Abel must have felt in his last moments, as the world tumbled around him and his brother's love turned into something ugly, dark, and deadly.

Lionello Spada's painting of the crime is disturbing in a different way. Apart from the savagery of the crime it depicts, it also fills me with misgivings about Spada. Once again, it seems Abel is about to be sacrificed on an altar. You work out for yourself what that implies. On the other hand, there is something vaguely bedlike about that altar - perhaps it is the drapery that does it, while the two young men - who might well have served as two sides of Spada's ideal of manhood - are conspicuously undraped. Between that and the closeness of their bodies, Cain might as easily be ravishing his brother as murdering him. This is not just a crime; it is a violation. Only, perhaps, if the characters weren't so pretty, you wouldn't also get a sense that Spada enjoyed the violation aspect. Double eurgh.

Finally, in my first post on this thread, I showed a Rubens sketch of Abel's dead body. At that time, I said I thought I had seen a colorized version. Actually, it looks again as if it was the other way around; Rubens was copying from the work of an earlier painter, in this case Michiel Coxie (d. 1592), who not only shows a beefcake Abel stretched out stone-cold (and with remarkably big feet, in perspective), but a virtually identical Cain being driven out of God's presence. My first thought is: it's a good thing Abel is dead, because his feet are practically in the fire. My second thought is: surely they had invented clothes by then. My third thought is: there is something really weird about the perspective in this picture. The foreground figure ought to be more foreshortened, unless this is being viewed (as it were) through a magnifying lens from a considerable distance away. But in that case, Cain must be much farther in the background than he appears to be. So, assuming Coxie wasn't completely incompetent, I think this painting suggests a significant element of doubt in the artist's mind. He views this event as impossibly remote, if not meaningless; or, perhaps, as simply unreal.

The Rubens angle, on the other hand, offers a nifty insight into the way artists learned, planned, and expressed themselves, in the context of the existing art works they knew and admired. But ultimately he chose to follow not Coxie's unbelief, but Schiavone's brutally frank depiction of Samson, to express his view - and here I am flagrantly speculating - that the ethics of his own humanistic age were superior to those revealed in biblical history. Perhaps, if he had dug deeper, he would have found that the Bible does not sanction Samson's hotheadedness, but rather, presents him as an example of God's graciousness in being the faithful, prayer-hearing, saving God even of jawbone-wielding nuts like Samson. And so perhaps even a know-it-all stuffed shirt like Rubens can find shelter under him!

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