Monday, June 25, 2007

Cain & Abel 3

I have way too many series of posts going at the same time. I finally killed off the A-Z composers thread, now it's time to kill another.

In my work for a certain Christian magazine which I shall not name, I and my co-workers have had to do some interesting things with art and imagery. Sometimes the results turned out a little funny. This is why one co-worker and I got a lot of laughs out of the phrases "kissy-face Luther" and "hair-replacement Jesus." And I can't imagine what could possibly top Photoshopping the Pope's head onto a surfer's body. (Amazingly, none of these masterpieces were ever published.) But now and then these odd assignments take an inspiring turn, and for me one such occasion involved a search for images of Cain and Abel. Here are some more of the paintings I found...

Here are a pair of tempera panels by Bertram of Minden. The first one depicts Cain and Abel making their offerings. God appears to be leaning decidedly toward Abel's offering, stretching down for a good sniff. In the second panel, Cain lets Abel know how he feels about this, using a club for emphasis. Abel looks very defenseless and even submissive, but that couldn't have been a happy moment for him. Perhaps the message of this diptych is: God's true worshipers can expect the violent jealousy of others; but when struck, they turn the other cheek. If anyone ever asks how often to turn it, or how far, the answer is right here.

Another before-the-fact picture is this relief by Jacopo della Quercia, showing the brothers burning their offerings on the same altar! Abel seems pretty caught up in his devotions, an opportunity Cain seems likely to exploit for nobody's good. Cain has his eye on little brother, definitely not the right angle to be looking during worship. But look above the altar; the flames from Cain's sacrifice seem reluctant to rise toward God, or perhaps God is smothering them with his hand. The message: be careful what you focus on when you come before God in worship.

Siegfried Detler Bendixen crafted this hand-colored lithograph of the two brothers. Once again, Cain is clearly directing his attention toward his brother's more successful sacrifice rather than God. His own altar isn't even aflame. He looks put out. Envious. He seems to be deciding whether a left hook or a karate chop will be quicker. I'm curious about the scallop shell on the ground, under the walking stick that may, in the end, be Cain's weapon of choice. Is this some kind of baptismal symbol? Nevertheless the message seems to be: "Is your eye evil because God is good?"

A little farther before the fact, here is James Tissot's depiction of Cain leading Abel to his death. Abel is just a kid! Another sweet, delicate, consumptive type, being dragged alive to his own grave by the brutish hand of his brother. It is a grim and savage scene, and you sympathize for the child whose life is about to end. In a way, this scene does the best job of depicting the tragedy of one brother slaying the other. Message: murder is a monstrous thing.

Go back even further before the crime. Here is Frans Pourbus the Elder's depiction of Adam and Eve with their young'uns. What cute babies they were together; such a pity one ended up murdering the other. And look, they had a cat, a dog, a monkey, and a goat in the household. Is that a cow in the distance? Message: evil can be done by nice, ordinary, well-brought up folks who had a happy home life.

Here is an idyllic 19th-century scene of the young couple, Adam and Eve, with their two cherubic sons. This time, instead of pets, the family has an interest in picking flowers. Somehow or other this picture is the one that hits me with the message: destructive envy can even find a foothold in a family that, between them, owns the whole world!

Some Flemish master did this more panoramic view of the Adam family's early years. They already have several children. Adam is working the ground by the sweat of his brow, Eve is making babies, and the boys (unless I mistake) are playing tag in the distance. And hey, feast your eyes on the unicorn! Message: being cast out of Eden may not have seemed so tough, at first. But just wait...

There are still other pictures showing the family life of the younger Adam and Eve and their small children, some of them with improbable details such Eve spinning wool on a spindle, the whole family wearing 16th-century garb, etc. For example, look at this picture by Domenico Fetti.

Here is one last picture of the young family that I found quite interesting; I'm not sure what to make of it. It is Charles Napier Kennedy's depiction of "Cain's first crime." I don't know enough about this painting to be able to say whether Cain's crime was feeding a lizard to a bird, or being upset that his brother was getting all the attention; that depends on which child is which, I suppose. This story isn't familiar to me. My Bible must be missing that chapter.

Next time I'll actually show some pictures of Cain murdering Abel. Brace yourself.

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