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Cain and Abel

Cain and Abel

Jacopo Robusti called Tintoretto (1519-1594). Galleria dell’Accademia. Venice. Around 1550-1563.

The first-born child of Adam and Eve was called Cain and his brother was Abel. Cain worked the land and Abel became a shepherd. When they grew up, Cain brought the produce of the land to offer to Yahweh and Abel brought the first-born of his flock. Yahweh favoured the offerings of Abel but he did not look with favour at Cain’s gifts.

Cain became very angry and depressed. Yahweh asked why Cain was angry, but Cain did not answer. He merely proposed to Abel to go out with him. When the brothers were well in the country, Cain killed Abel.

Yahweh asked to Cain, ‘Where is your brother?’ Cain answered that he did not know and that he was not supposed to be the guardian of his brother. But Yahweh knew, and told Cain that the blood of his brother was crying out from the ground. Yahweh told Cain that he would be banned and cursed. He told that the ground would no longer yield its strengths to Cain. Yahweh condemned Cain to become a wanderer.

Cain pleaded to Yahweh, complaining that this was an unbearable punishment. Not only would he have to wander about the earth, he had to hide from Yahweh and whomever he met would kill him. Yahweh then put a mark on Cain and told that whoever would kill Cain would suffer vengeance sevenfold.

Cain later had a son, Enoch, who became the founder of a city called after him. Enoch had a son from whose line came Jabal, the ancestor of musicians. Jabal’s brother was called Tubal-Cain and he was the ancestor of the iron and copper smiths.

Adam however had another son, called Seth. From Seth would descend Noah and from Noah’s sons the whole earth was peopled. From his direct lineage came Terah and his son Abraham.

Jacopo Robusti was born in Venice in 1519. His father was a dyer of silk materials, so Jacopo was called Tintoretto. The boy had talents for drawing, so he trained as a painter and may even have worked for a short time in the most famous workshop of Venice, Titian’s. Already in 1539 he seems to have become a master of his own. The first works of Tintoretto also established his fame. They were a ‘Last Supper’ made in 1547 for the church of San Marcuola and especially the ‘Miracle of Saint Mark’ in 1548, painted for the Scuola di San Marco. In the beginning of the 1550’s he worked for the Scuola della Trinità and at that time also he married a girl named Faustina Episcopi. She was the daughter of Marco Episcopi, who had been Guardian Grande of the Scuola di San Marco for which Jacopo also made his first major work. Through this father in law Tintoretto must have become well introduced in the circle of the custodians of the Venetian Scuoli.

Jacopo Tintoretto worked for many Scuoli and churches of Venice. He delivered paintings for the churches of San Rocco, Maria del Gilglio, Santa Maria della Salute, Santa Maria Domini, Madonna dell’Orto and for the Scuola di San Marco. This was a relatively young Scuola, but a prosperous one. Its building was only finished in 1549. and it was not before 1557 that the decision was taken to decorate the halls of the building, starting with the Sala dell’Albergo, the hall of the hostel. This decision was only put in effect in 1564 and Jacopo Tintoretto received the commission for he first central, oval decoration of the ceiling. The most renowned painters of Venice entered the competition: Andrea Schiavone, Federico Zuccari, Giuseppe Salviati, and Paolo Veronese. But Tintoretto surprised the jury by not presenting a cartoon or study drawing, but the whole ‘Glorification of Saint Roch’ in oil on canvas, and donating it for free to the Scuola. Then, without being paid, he carried out the decoration of the rest of the ceiling. This would be the beginning of Tintoretto’s lifetime work, as he could conclude a contract with the Guardians of the Scuola di San Rocco for more paintings in exchange for a yearly stipend. In all Tintoretto painted sixty large canvases for the Scuola. His work lasted until 1588. Tintoretto’s paintings for the Scuola were all on religious themes. He painted from the New Testament scenes such as on the Crucifixion, on Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, the ‘Adoration of the Magi’, ‘Christ praying in the Garden’, and so on. But he also delivered scenes from the Old Testament such as the ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’, ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, the ‘Vision of Ezekiel’, and several scenes of the life of Moses such as the ‘Gathering of the Manna’, the ‘Pillar of Fire’, the ‘Brazen Serpent’, and others. Jacopo Tintoretto knew the Bible well and he eagerly used its main stories. From early on in his career as a painter he studied the themes and showed them in his own particularly striking style.

Tintoretto’s picture of ‘Cain and Abel’ is one of his early ones. It was part of a series of five paintings made between 1550 and 1553 for the Scuola della Trinità. The German Teutonic Knights instituted this Scuola. Its building was originally near the Dogana del Mar, the old custom-house of Venice. It was demolished in the 1600s to make place for the Basilica of Santa Maria della salute and rebuilt nearby. I21. Tintoretto painted five scenes from Genesis, among which the ‘Cain and Abel’.

‘Cain and Abel’ is a very Michelangelesque, Mannerist work, related in vision to the works of Rosso Fiorentino. We see the two naked bodies of strongly muscled men. The bodies are intertwined. Abel’s body lies around Cain’s and although Cain’s figure dominates, Cain’s body also draws around Abel’s. Tintoretto studied bodies so contorted and turned. This is the intimacy of murder between brothers. It is the first violence that is shown here, when the nudity and the touching of bodies eliminates all distance between prey and predator. There is no mistake in the murder. The crime is immediate in the touching and the contact of flesh upon flesh, in the clash of the bodies and in the depiction of the sudden moment of the hideous act perpetuated without remorse and with unwavering determination. Cain blocks an arm of Abel on his knees. He pushes down the head of Abel and he holds a knife high for a powerful stroke on the body of his brother. Abel resists, but it is too late. He moves his body and turns it in an unnatural twist of stress, but he will not be bale to avoid the blow. Cain is too strong and has been too quick for Abel to react well. Tintoretto knew marvellously to show the tragic scene, the rapidity, the violence and the flesh-to-flesh intimacy of murder.

The crime takes place in a hidden place, behind rocks and trees, in a corner of Eden that lies in the darkness of the sins of humans. All the colours in the painting are browns and ochres. On the right Tintoretto’s picture opens to a landscape. Here we see the calm waters of a lake or a sea. Here Cain wanders on the beaches, after the crime, hence a small and lonely figure. Tintoretto showed the murder but also the result of murder and sin: the remorse and the loneliness.

The scene is an early Bible theme, so Tintoretto has not given a knife to Cain, but a piece of spiky wood that can be driven into Abel. The brothers might have been hunting and the symbol of the crime, a decapitated head of a deer lies beneath a tree down on the right.

Tintoretto applied a strong composition. Cain is painted along the right diagonal. Abel’s arms are along the left diagonal. Cain’s bodyline leads down to the deer head, to the crime again, whereas Abel’s bodyline brings the eye of the viewer to the innocence of the blue lake. The tree marks about one third of the picture; Abel’s hand on the ground is on another third part of the frame length. The masses of the two bodies balance each other and the two bodies together balance the mass of the tree.

The two bodies of Cain and Abel are almost nude. They touch and the bodies flow one around the other in intimate touching. Such a depiction is definitely not Renaissance anymore. It is all showing of violent emotions of the flesh. Tintoretto’s lines are all either oblique or curving directions. So much exposing of twisted, naked bodies exclaims the tension of a Mannerist picture. Violence is too tense, too direct for either Renaissance or Baroque depiction. Tintoretto’s ‘Cain and Abel’ is a painting of the conflicts of the Mannerist period. This picture was made somewhat forty to fifty years before Caravaggio made his first paintings of dramatic contrasts of light and dark, but all Caravaggio’s main elements of style are present in Tintoretto’s ‘Cain and Abel’: strong composition, closeness of the theme to the viewer, powerful depiction of bodies in a very realistic way, importance given to the main theme with disregard for background decoration, and of course a new emphasis on the contrasts between light and dark. But Tintoretto’s painting contains a direct contact of flesh that Caravaggio, even in his own mains scenes of violence, avoided and that Caravaggio always showed with more restraint and distance. Tintoretto was a precursor of Caravaggio’s art and it took only some relaxing of the violence to come to Baroque.

The effects of light and dark that are so reminiscent of the Baroque period are already entirely spectacular in this painting of Jacopo Tintoretto. The light comes from down left and rises from Abel’s highlighted back to Cain’s shoulders. Tintoretto’s mastery of light and shadow is total. We cannot but remember Caravaggio’s ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ in which the innovative, emphasised dramatic use of light and dark is similarly impressive. The colours of ‘Cain and Abel’ are very dark. The two figures, even though the light is thrown on them, are painted in shades of brown and ochre. The trees on the left and the middle are very dark green. With Tintoretto’s pictures it is often difficult to ascertain whether these colours were the original ones. Tintoretto’s green paint became darkened over time to become brown. His blue colours became grey, his yellows greenish and darker also, his reds paled to pink. We may suppose Tintoretto used lighter colours in the sixteenth century than what we say today. Still, we may reflect that he deliberately also wanted to show the first odious crime on the dark side. Hence, Tintoretto introduced a reference to a calm lake on the right. The crime had to be perpetrated in a sombre place and had to be contrasted with blue water and sky.

‘Cain and Abel’ is a relatively early work of Jacopo Tintoretto, but this picture proved Tintoretto to be a true genius and powerful master of an art that he would bring to full glory in the subsequent canvases of the Scuola di San Rocco.

Adam and Eve finding Abel’s Corpse

Joseph Florentin Léon Bonnat (1833-1922). Musée des Beaux-Arts. Lille. 1861.

Léon Bonnat studied first at the Academy of Fine Arts San Fernando of Madrid in Spain. He was born in Bayonne, in the south of France and not so far from Spain. He returned from Spain to France when his father died. From 1854 on however he was in Paris, and continued to learn painting at the Académie there. He tried twice to win the ‘Prix de Rome’ to win a five-year stay in Rome, but failed. The town of Bayonne however financed his travel and living in Rome. He hired a small workshop and could also attend some of the courses given in the Villa Medici, where the French Academy of Rome was established. He admired much Michelangelo’s powerful works in Rome. He travelled to Florence, Venice and Naples. He made at first scenes from the Old and New Testaments and he had success with his representations. The ‘Adam and Eve finding the Body of Abel’ was thus made in Rome in 1861, sent to the Salon of Paris that year and bought by the French State to be sent to the Museum of Fine Arts of Lille. Léon Bonnat painted further historical scenes, scenes of Italian life. He returned to Paris after a few years in Rome and also worked on frescoes. He continued to visit Italy for shorter periods, in 1866 and 1875-1876, and he also continued to paint Italian country folk. He participated in the reforms of the French Académie in 1863. He might have kept a grudge against the official Academy for not having succeeded in getting the Price of Rome; he was very critical of Academicism. Still, in 1905, Léon Bonnat was appointed director of the Academy of Fine Arts of France; he had his revenge.

Léon Bonnat’s painting strikes by its strange colours and its overall appearance. The canvas appears as if worked over by a hard brush, or as if it were seen through a rough glass or through the dust of time. Bonnat certainly wanted to experiment with new techniques of representation, and he addressed colouring first. This way of working was far from French Academic practice. But then: why follow a practice when deviating from practice could give you an artistic advantage?

Beyond the striking colours, Léon Bonnat’s painting is an exercise in representation. Abel lies lifeless on the rocks. His head rests on the knees of Eve. This is like in a classical Pietà position, as we know from so many pictures of Mary and Jesus. Adam sits on the right, in a pure Michelangelo attitude so that his powerful muscles show. The painting therefore, by its content and the poises of its figures could be considered as a typical academic work of a French scholar in Rome. But Léon Bonnat, through his use of light in the picture and through his deep colours, broke down the academic treatment of the subject.

Abel lies on the rocks. Here, Bonnat used magnificent golden colours. He let the light cover Abel and bring his fine, thin chest be the central area of the painting. Abel is indeed shown like a Jesus, a young, delicate man with slender traits and limbs, elegant long arms and legs. When we compare Abel with Adam, we are quite surprised since Abel is so much more exquisite, more vulnerable in the barren, terrible desert into which Adam and Eve and their family have been banished. Abel’s head hangs over Eve’s knees, lifeless but as if sleeping and caressed by his mother.

Eve is seated. She holds her hands to her breast. She looks at her son. She is still a young woman. She is serene, sullen, in apathy, in solemn sadness at so much hardness of life, east of Eden, and at the death of her son. The golden light plays a little also on her bare shoulders. Abel truly is her son, because he is as delicate as she is. Eve looks at her son only. She looks intensely and lost to the world. She is alone, isolated, and far from Adam. She makes no gesture of horror. Adam is not with her. She is one with her son.

Adam sits to the right. He sits in a position like Michelangelo could have imagined for a sculpture. Adam sits on his knees but his torso is turned so that Bonnat could paint all the muscles of his powerful back. Adam sits like a wrestler and he is out of the scene of Eve and Abel. He does not belong to the scene of grief, to the intimate symbiosis of mother and son. He is the Hercules, the Vulcan of later times. He did not choose Eve. Already the first couple, Adam and Eve, are distinct, separate, each lonely, and too different to be able to sit together to mourn. They mourn so differently. Eve is resigned; Adam drawing restless on his muscles, pulling them into tension as if he were preparing to fight fate. Adam is a brute who continues to turn and contort his body. Eve is softness and she is turned inwards; Adam is all outwardly but futile display of force. The force is useless, spent, and the protest, the overt show of power of Adam is in vain. Abel lies between Adam and Eve and both parents seem to know that this death is more the result of the old sin, the old trespassing of God’s command than a battle of life. As compared to the act of sin, the roles are reversed since Eve is resigned and Adam revolts.

Léon Bonnat worked fully the contrasts between light and shadow in the Baroque way. That also was new in a period where the Academy was much given over to the legacy of Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres and Jacques-Louis David. One would have expected a clear scene, clear lines, and only fine indications of forms. Bonnat returned to the Caravesque use of light. The light on Abel is splendid and bright. It continues to flow over his body into the sandy valley beyond. Some light also falls on Eve, sculpting her round and soft forms, whereas Abel is all angular and sharper in the harsh light. Eve’s head is in the shadows. Adam is much more in the dark, since grief of a man should not be shown. His bronze shoulders merely emerge from the night and the shadows seem to creep over him, engulf him from the right side so that he becomes one with the black rocks behind him. Caravaggio would still have painted Adam’s face in all detail and in some light. Bonnat hides the face. Adam’s powerlessness in sadness was not to be shown. Adam’s face must be as contorted as his body.

The difference in degrees of light on Adam and Eve again separates the two in solitude. That solitude is enhanced by the desolation of the desert. Bonnat did not paint a flat desert. He showed blue, sharp and thus menacing mountains without any plants or trees. Bonnat showed directly the difference with the Garden of Eden, from which Adam and Eve have been banished by God. Bonnat painted the rough desert in a traditional ‘Open V’ structure in the space opened by the figures of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve are in the shadows, somewhat protected from the sun by the mass of rocks, but the dry sun catches Abel fully. Bonnat placed his figures, and of course Abel especially, rather low in the picture so that he could not only show the desert but also let the weight of the sky completely take its place in the painting. Here, Léon Bonnat applied many hues over which blue dominates but in which we also see many other hues such as orange to indicate the light of the sun. It is in this colouring of the sky that we remark another approach to Academicism. Bonnat did not separate anymore the colour areas but he let all colours of the sky flow into each other and merge to one global perception of splendour.

Léon Bonnat made ‘Adam and Eve finding the corpse of Abel’ in Rome. It was Bonnat’s second painting there. Bonnat may have been somewhat set against Academism because he had not been selected for the Prix de Rome. He remained in criticism to painting ruled by strict and old directives, as taught at the French Academy. His picture is a strange image. He combined a traditional Pietà with a Michelangelesque view of an athletic body. Critics did not appreciate such reminders of fine themes, modified to other aims. Bonnat however may have done this knowingly, by purpose to emphasise a certain revolt against established taste. The painting may have been thus a personal experiment, as other French painters of Rome occasionally offered. Bonnat was still young. The picture may also have happened without much after-thought of fore-thought by an impetuous, angry young artist. In all cases, we feel that Bonnat was after experiments and evolution of the art of painting as he was used to be shown, away from the teachings of the French Academy into new directions and these were for Bonnat mostly in his handling of colour and light, not in a drastic change of themes and content. Other painters of course brought a much more profound revolution, towards Impressionism, and after a while these experiments became the new norm. Bonnat however much he wanted to evolve, nevertheless stayed a prisoner to his time and to what he had learned by academic his teachers. Bonnat sent paintings from Rome to the Parisian salon exhibitions, just like the students of the Villa Medici. He was obliged to set his art off against the academism of the Villa Medici. He was the odd-man-out. He tried to innovate, to present another style and other views, but he lacked the power to break away forcefully and decidedly.

Léon Bonnat became the Director of the French Académie in 1905, one of the last defenders of the great Academy tradition, when ironically, not much was left of the old, directive academic way of painting.

Other Paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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