The full story with all its lacunae
Genesis 4 contains the account of the first births as well as the first murder in human history and of the rupture of the three basic human relationships: with oneself, with others and with God.
This narrative is characterized by gaps, silences and fateful unexplained actions that provoke more questions than solutions. Both literary and visual commentators have tried to fill these gaps and answer the important questions.
The description is bare bones: not a word on physical appearance, few emotions.
Beyond the mere report of the births, the names of the new born and their occupations, the name of the first born is explained, but the explanation hides more than it reveals: Does mother Eve claim that God is the father of her child or simply that the child was born with God's help? Abel's name is not explained: because its meaning clearly alludes to his fate ('transient,' 'insubstantial') or because this second child just didn't get much attention?
In time, the two brothers, Cain the farmer and Abel the shepherd, bring God offerings from their labors. The central question that arises regarding these offerings is why the Lord prefers Abel's over Cain's? Was it because of the content of the offerings themselves, or did it have to do with the brothers? Both Jewish and Christian commentary concludes that Cain's offering was lacking compared to Abel's. Does this conclusion derive from the descriptions themselves or from the desire to justify God's preference? Perhaps the preference was capricious? Was this a contest from the outset, in which one had to win and the other to lose? And beyond these questions, the commentators ask how God's preference was perceived?
In the continuation of the story, Cain is crushed by God's rejection. God speaks to Cain in his distress, but the divine counsel is opaque.
Exegetical problems continue to abound. Cain says something to his brother, but what he says is missing from the text. Did Cain plan to kill his brother or was he provoked into an unintended outburst? God interrogates the hypocritical murderer and condemns Cain to perpetual exile. In verse 13, Cain cries out three ambiguous words.
The 12th century Sepharadi exegete, Abraham Ibn Ezra, writes that the word avon can mean either 'sin' or 'punishment', both part of a single process. Thus one understanding of Cain's words is as a protest against his punishment. In response, God reduces Cain's punishment by placing on him a mark of protection. Rashi, Ibn Ezra's Ashkenazi predecessor, understands Cain's words as a question: Is my avon indeed too much to bear? Thus Cain is begging for mercy, by reminding God of His previous (midrashic) acts of mercy. The 13th century Sepharadi commentator, Ramban, insists that the correct understanding of the Cain's words is as a confession: Indeed, my crime cannot be forgiven. We conclude that human contrition can prevent Divine condemnation - a prophetic concept generally lacking in the Torah.
Finally, a sign or mark of some sort is put on Cain - what does this mark look like? What does this sign (that has become a stock phrase in western, as well as in modern Hebrew parlance) do?
To sum up: the biblical story of Cain and Abel is characterized by ambiguity and gaps that the lay reader and the theologian must fill, according to their inclination and imagination.
In order to begin to unpack the artistic answers to the many questions raised by the biblical account, we will first examine a work that illustrates all stages of the plot: a bronze relief produced for the doors of the Baptistery of Florence's main cathedral in 1424, by the Italian artist Lorenzo Ghiberti.
Ghiberti recounts the story of Cain and Abel in two acts, each with three scenes: the first is found on the left side of the relief and proceeds from top to bottom, from the brothers' childhood by their parents' hut, to their years of labor at their chosen occupations; the second act, on the right side, also advances downward, from the offerings and the preference of Abel (signaled by God's outstretched hand) at the top, to the murder, and ending with Cain's expulsion at the bottom. In both acts, the relief becomes more three-dimensional as it descends.
Comparison of Ghiberti's treatment to that of other artists reveals that few others relate to the exposition found in the first act. Most artists are interested mainly in the offerings and the murder, and somewhat less in the expulsion. If so, why did Ghiberti choose to pay so much attention to background, which even the Bible limits (2 verses)? It appears that Ghiberti's intention was to emphasize the horror of the murder by contrasting it to the pastoral atmosphere of the first act, the point of reversal coming with the rejection of Cain's offering. The contrast is also expressed in the transformation of Abel's staff, from the scene of his watch over his flock to Cain's murder weapon, still in his hands as he is banished by God. The meaning of God's and Cain's gestures in this last scene is unclear: Is Cain rejecting responsibility for his brother's welfare (Am I my brother's keeper?) or is he begging for divine reprieve?
Artists, like literary commentators, expressed their own and their culture's interpretations of our story.
Let us compare Ghiberti's approach to those of three northern European artists, of the pre-Renaissance tradition. How do they explain the divine preference of Abel and his offering?
• There is a very noticeable tendency to contrast the two brothers by their physical appearance: Cain is ugly, awkward, bearded and repulsive, compared to the handsome and refined Abel. Consequently even their dress is different, as can be seen in particular in the Rohan Book of Hours. Ghiberti has no such contrast.
• In several cases, another difference lies in the body language of the two brothers: while Abel kneels in reverence, Cain either stands defiant or crouches slightly. Once again Ghiberti did not adopt this convention, but rather showed the two brothers kneeling on either side of the altar.
• As for the offerings, Cain's cereal offering is usually shown as blighted, in contrast to Abel's well-fed lamb. Here, too, the Rohan Hours, representing the Gothic tradition, emphasizes this contrast.
• A special component of the Holkham Picture Bible is the "hell mouth" under Cain's altar.
This demon seems to swallow the smoke of Cain's offering, while Abel's rises in flame. While Ghiberti also clearly indicates a difference in the flames of the two offering, this is only to explain how God's preference was perceived.
All of the components mentioned so far appear in the photograph below from a performance of "Cain and Abel" from the medieval York Mystery cycle.
Notice, in particular, the symbolic figures accompanying Cain (left) and Abel. These figures serve a similar function to the two faces of God in another medieval painting.
According to the preceding examination, interpretation of the offering scene changed during the Renaissance: Earlier, many artists portrayed Cain as the quintessence of evil, under the influence of normative Christian exegesis; Ghiberti and other Renaissance artists pictured the two brothers as essentially similar. As a result, God's preference of Abel seems capricious. As we shall see, the changing interpretation of our story is even more striking with regard to the murder scene.
An additional change occurs in artistic treatments of the offering scene in modern times, with growing focus on the brothers' emotions rather than on their sacrifices.
In Dore's engraving, the highlight is on the rejected brother (contrast van Eyck). Sophisticated use of light and shadow convey that all is not "black and white". The success and failure of the offerings has changed: the hands of Abel, the "winner", are relaxed and open, he is smug and satisfied, indifferent to his brother, self-absorbed. Cain, exposed and beaten, turns both toward his brother and to the viewer; his hands are clenched in anxiety. While the two altars are close to one another, they are also worlds apart. A gloomy forest is behind Abel's offering, as if to stress the dire consequences inherent in God's grace. Cain's rejection is in the light foreground. The smoke that didn’t rise to the heavens curls and crawls at his feet. In the center of his altar, we see the unappealing remains of withered stalks, almost reminding us of the monstrous hellmouth of Holkham.
Hans Thoma, a German contemporary of Dore, depicts the one conversation between the two brothers. They have gone out to the fields to talk. "And Cain said to his brother Abel…." Perhaps Cain only needed to get things off his chest, to speak to someone, to confide in his brother? How did Abel react to his brother's pathetic confusion over his rejected offering? Did he look into Cain's eyes and see how distraught he was, how envious? Did he care? Abel did not yet understand how dangerous it is to be God's chosen one. His self-assurance knew no bounds.
The murder is the scene that has always elicited most artistic interest. As mentioned above, the question of intent is central. Artists weigh in on this issue, and on Cain's character in general, through their portrayal of his facial expressions, his dress, his body language and the murder weapon. While Ibn Ezra writes that the identity of the weapon is insignificant, one can draw conclusions here regarding Cain's intentions.
For example, in Meister Bertram's Grabow altarpiece, we see a satanic Cain, dressed in red, wielding the jawbone of an ass toward the coup de grace against an already bleeding Abel. His blue robe identifies him with Jesus, according to medieval artistic convention; his gestures, too, identify Abel as the ultimate martyr, beseeching mercy. Cain even tramples Abel, apparently in accordance with the literal interpretation of "vayakom Cain" "Cain stood up on his brother Abel and killed him" (v. 8). But the portrayal of this scene in the Duke of Alba's illustrated Bible is even more violent: Cain bites Abel neck! This unusual modus operandi is apparently based on the Zohar's account. And among the few Muslim depictions of the murder, a manuscript from 1300 in New York's Morgan Library has Cain about to crush the sleeping Abel with a large stone. This artist seems to have understood vayakom as "surprised," similarly to the interpretation of most Jewish commentators.
As already mentioned, until the Renaissance, most depictions of the murder were based on its christological interpretation as a prefiguration of Jesus' murder by the Jews. It is fascinating, therefore, to note the absence of this story from Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling. Apparently the theological interpretation did not attract Michelangelo. And while the story continues to appear after the Renaissance, its depiction has usually changed dramatically. It is no longer seen as a condemnation of the Jews, but as a metaphor for human-political struggle and competition. For example, Titian painted the two brothers as equally muscular and similarly clothed men.
But stereotypical interpretation reappears at the end of 19th century, in a statue of the German Reinhold Begas, who sculpted numerous portraits of Bismarck and other German nationalist figures. Here Cain is cast as a muscular African native, cautiously guarding his prey—Abel's limp, pale body hanging on a severed tree stump. Thus the biblical story is reinterpreted as a warning against the threat of the "inferior races." Begas' iconography is based on Michelangelo's pieta—which profoundly impressed Begas during his sojourn in Italy—but here any hint of pity has disappeared.
The expulsion and the mark
After the murder, there is a lengthy dialogue between Cain and God, consisting of interrogation, accusation, response and partial reprieve.
Neither God's intentions nor Cain's responses are entirely clear, as already indicated. Once again, artists express their varied interpretations of these issues through facial expressions, gestures and stances.
For example, in this scene from the 12th century mosaics of Monreale, Sicily, Abel's blood is personified in the little man, whose voice cries out from the earth. Conventional Byzantine art, shows God, without emotion, gesturing Cain toward his exile, while Cain lamely lifts a hand in defense.
Similarly, Muslim illuminations seldom express emotion. However, in the story illustrated here (Quran 5: 27 - 32), Kabil (Cain) is overcome by guilt after the murder and not knowing what to do with Habil (Abel)'s body, he carries it on his back for days until the merciful Allah, sends two birds to teach Cain about burial. A similar story is found in several Jewish midrashim. Thus, in both Jewish and Muslim sources, a modicum of understanding is accorded Cain's emotional condition.
Burial of Kabil, Stories of the Prophets,
Chester Beatty Library,
This empathetic approach toward Cain grew in modern times, as in English poet William Blake's painting of 1826.
The painting is suffused with anguish: Adam's face and hands reveal his helplessness as the horrified Cain flees. Eve mourns her son with bowed head and body. In the very same period, the English playwright, Lord Byron, cast Cain as a tragic hero.
Interest in the emotions of the story's characters can be seen in the twin statues of Gustinus Ambrosi, a 20th century Austrian sculptor. The statues can be understood in various manners:
Is the statue on the left the contrite Cain or the injured Abel? Is the statue on the right the reverent Abel, after his offering has been accepted, or is it the rejected Cain, trying to understand his rejection. Victim and criminal seem to be aspects of the same individual.