Saturday, June 16, 2007

Cain & Abel 2

Here are some more Cain-and-Abel art works, with a bit of amateur analysis by yours truly. As before, click on the thumbnail images to see larger versions. Please give Bridgeman Art Library and Art Resource a round of applause for furnishing the images.

I'm going to put these two engravings by Gustave Dore (d. 1883) together. Even though they aren't in full color, I think they are the most powerful pictures of the Cain-Abel story I have ever seen. The first one shows the two brothers making their separate sacrifices to God. Clearly Abel is having more success; Cain's smoke isn't even rising to heaven, and he looks rather put out about it. In fact, he looks like a furtive weasel. You can almost feel the envy gnawing at him while he looks sidewise at his brother, who isn't being a show-off at all. Even though you can't see much of Abel, his simplicity makes him likeable. The message is straight out of Genesis 4:7: "Sin crouches at the door, and its desire is for you."

The second picture by Dore shows the two brothers just after the murder has taken place. This one takes my breath away. Remember, this is the first murder on record; possibly even the first human death. Cain seems to be realizing the enormity of what he has done. And all nature around him is in sync with his feelings, from the stormy sky, to the gnarly roots that seem to be recoiling in horror, to the very slope of the ground which speaks of a world turned sidewise, events tumbling out of control, pulled irresistably down to this hard, stony depth. Message: you have passed the point of no return.

Now that I have seen to my favorites, here are some more "after the crime" images. Here, for example, is Henry Fuseli's (d. 1825) depiction of the curse of Cain. There's Abel's corpse crumpled against the altar. It looks as if God is rising from the smoke of Abel's sacrifice and taking Cain down in a flying tackle. The figures look like studies for comic book heroes. The message: God avenges himself on those who murder his saints.

Here is "The Denunciation of Cain" as depicted by George Frederick Watts (d. 1904). God appears as a column of fire wreathed in soaring angels, too terrible for Cain to look upon as he straddles the corpse of his brother. Message: God may be utterly other than we are, but he isn't distant; he responds to offenses against his children!

Here is Fernand Cormon's (d. 1924) depiction of the flight of Cain, along with his wife and children. Cormon interprets the race of Cain as "stone-age" people, and he makes a very interesting decision to show Cain at an advanced age, surrounded by stout adult sons. After all, the Bible doesn't say Cain and Abel were teenagers or twenty-somethings when the murder took place. They might have been grandfathers! The message: it is hard to be people without a country, but when you have no choice (and no home), you just keep moving.

Giambattista Mengardi (d. 1796) made this picture of the "Fall of Cain." It's too bad the Bridgeman logo covers Cain's face. Observe that Cain is pretty again; the fire is still burning on the altar; and God appears anthropomorphically, though you know he is God because (a) he isn't perpendicular to the ground, and (b) he has cherubs orbiting him. God is banishing Cain, but look closely at the scepter in his it me, or does it look like a cross? Message: the sinner is driven out of God's presence in order that God might bring him back on His own terms.

Here are three statues depicting Cain after the murder of Abel. They all make you feel like pitying the culprit. The first is by Giovanni Dupre (d. 1882); Cain seems to be running away in blind horror. In the second, by Henri Vidal (19th cent.) he is bowed with grief and shame; the way it is photographed, one feels the weight of the heavens pressing down on him. The third, by Antoine Etex (d. 1888), depicts the sorrow of Cain and his family as a result of God's curse, which Cain's wife and children shared with him. Message: killers are to be pitied.

1 comment:

Marie N. said...

Tres interessant! I don't think I've seen the statues before.

I admire Dore's prints. I have a beautiful copy of the Divine Comedy with his work illustrating the pages.