Paintings of Cain & Abel
Cain and Abel were two brothers who followed different paths: Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. At the end of the year they made an offering to God of the things they had produced.
- Cain offered grain and the fruits of his harvest, and
- Abel offered a sacrificial lamb from his flock.
God showed favour to Abel, but not to Cain. Angered by God’s rejection and filled with resentment – as the Bible says, ‘sin was crouching at his door’, Cain killed his brother. God banished Cain and put a mark on him, the famous ‘mark of Cain’.
The First Mourning, Bouguereau, 1888
Cain murders Abel, Pietro Novelli
Cain and Abel Offer Sacrifice,
Ghent altarpiece, Hubert & Jan van Eyck
Cain kills Abel,
Ghent altarpiece, Hubert and Jan van Eyck
Cain and Abel, Tintoretto
Panel showing episodes in the story of Cain and Abel, Ghiberti, the Gates of Paradise on the Baptistry in Florence
Cain Slaying his brother Abel,
Peter Paul Rubens, 1600
Cain Kills Abel
Eve with Cain and Abel, Bacchiacci
Why paint this scene at all? It does not figure anywhere in the Genesis story. The only possible explanation is that this picture is meant to partner all those paintings of Mary of Nazareth with the child Jesus and John the Baptist. These other paintings show mankind redeemed; perhaps this painting by Bacchiacci shows why the birth (and death) of Jesus was necessary.
Hidden meanings, symbols
- Artworks of Cain and Abel are not all that common, perhaps because the subject is so sombre: conflict, violence and death. There is no happy ending for anyone.
- Abel’s offering is usually a sheaf of wheat, Cain’s a portion of animal meat.
- Abel represented the nomadic life, where people travelled with their animals and were relatively free; Cain stood for farming, more secure but more restrictive too
- Both ways of life were locked in a struggle for dominance, and though the nomadic way of life lingered on in some places, by the time the Bible was written it had been almost entirely replaced by agriculture
- Artists put various weapons into Cain’s hand: usually a club, or an ass’s jawbone which might have been modified for use in reaping grain
- For Christians, the death of Abel the shepherd was seen as a premonition of the death of Christ (the Good Shepherd) with Cain as Judas.
The Bible text
1 Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.”
2 Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.
3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.
4 But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering,
5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?
7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”
8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
10 The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.
11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.
12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”
13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear.
14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
15 But the Lord said to him, “Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.
16 So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
Bible Art: Paintings and Artworks from the Old Testament – Bible Study Resource: Old Testament, Cain murders Abel