Saturday, June 16, 2007

Cain & Abel

Don't ask why, but I was recently tasked with looking up art works depicting Cain and Abel. Though I have been doing a lot of this on a variety of topics, I found the results for the Biblical characters of Cain and Abel most interesting. The story, in case you haven't read Genesis chapter 4 in a while, is about two brothers in the second generation of human beings - Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain envied Abel because his sacrifices pleased God more than Cain's did. So, in spite of a warning from God, Cain killed Abel. Applying the most powerful tool known to forensic science (i.e., divine omniscience), God figured out whodunit and cursed Cain, driving him and his family into exile. Enough of the story.

Here are the pictures and what I think they reveal. Click on the thumbnails to see a larger version of each picture. I'm going to do this in several parts, and out of sheer perversity, I'm going to start with some "after the fact" crime scene images:

Peter Paul Rubens drew this study of Abel after the dirty deed. I think I've seen a colorized version of this somewhere; but no matter. Even in sketch form you get the idea Rubens is trying to get across. Abel is depicted as a virtually ideal male figure, and isn't it a pity he's stone dead. The message: the crime of all crimes is to destroy beauty.

Here is a French manuscript showing Adam and Eve mourning the death of their son. It is unusual to see these figures fully clothed. The message: nothing is more pure and chaste than a parent's sorrow at the death of a child.

The same scene, as depicted by Johann Liss (d. 1629), is full of shadows and edged with a twilight glow. It expresses the horror and tragedy, not only of the old parents who have lost their beautiful son, but also of a new darkness that has come into the world. The message: a child's death is the final proof that our world has fallen into a night of violence, death, and misery.

Leon Bonnat (d. 1922) depicts the morning parents in a more youthful aspect - not to mention naked, naked, naked! Nevertheless, he gives each of the figures a character of its own: Abel, who has a pale, thin, consumptive look, suggesting a delicate sensitive type who might seem doomed from the start; Adam, histrionic in his anguish, yet cloaked in shadow as if he doesn't really matter; and Eve, ever-so-motherly, contemplating the life that has been ripped from her. The focus of the image, and of the light, is on the mother and son, suggesting a parallel Pieta image of Mary cradling the body of Jesus. The message: this blight will not be cured until the second Eve cradles the second Adam in her sorrowful arms.

Philippe de Champaigne's (d. 1764) "Deploration of Abel" has a brighter look. It glamorizes Adam's (again histrionic) grief while Eve, again like a Teutonic Madonna, weeps quietly and, in a remarkable twist, simultaneously tries to control her brood of younger children. You get the sense that this Eve may not have lost so much, except it seems she had a particular attachment to Abel. The message: Why do the good ones have to die young?

Pieter van der Werff (d. 1722) delivers this sentimental engraving of the parents mourning their son. The background in this picture is more interesting than the human subjects, who seem moved more to piety than grief over the death of their improbably pretty son. It must be significant that the fire of Abel's sacrifice is still burning on the altar. The landscape delivers one message: even a big, wide-open world is not big enough for human hatred. The altar delivers another message: this kind of stain only comes out by sacrifice. Also, notice the jawbone lying near the bottom of the picture. This won't be the last Cain-Abel image to suggest a relationship to the story of Samson!

William Blake (d. 1827) did this, er, unusual picture of the funeral of Abel, complete with a shovel and a grave, both of which must have been invented just for the occasion. I'm guessing the guy on the left is Cain, fleeing in horror. The emotions in this piece are extreme. Message: There are some mistakes you can't take back.

Elihu Vedder (d. 1923) shows Adam and Eve mourning, and somehow manages to leave Abel out of the picture. For Vedder it isn't the melodrama of the crime that matters, but the grief of the parents, and the solemn memorial which their sons' altars have become. Message: even if the whole world belongs to you, your heart can choose to live where it hurts the most.

Tune in another time for some curse-of-Cain shots, some in-the-act shots, some before-the-fact images, and some WAY before-the-fact pictures of Cain and Abel. The best is yet to come!

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