Abel's birth and death are recorded in Genesis 4:1-8. In the art he is mostly seen in one of two contexts. The first is the story of his and his brother's offering of sacrifice to the Lord, as in the three pictures at right. God accepts Abel's sacrifice of "the firstlings of his flock" but not Cain's offering of grain, so in his anger Cain slays his brother. He is then condemned to a life as a vagabond.
The images and mystery plays picture God's discrimination between the two sacrifices by having fire come down on Abel's offering but not on Cain's (example). The fire was first proposed in the second century by Theodotion and cited in the fourth by St. Jerome and in the fifth or sixth by Procopius of Gaza. Jerome noted that the absence of fire on Cain's offering would explain how he could have known that God had rejected it, and he cited God's similar actions in the dedication of the Temple of Solomon and Elijah's discrediting of the prophets of Baal.1
Why did God disdain Cain's offering? Genesis gives no answer, but Procopius of Gaza explains that what Abel gave, he gave entirely, while Cain selfishly divided what he had between God and himself – and took his time doing even that (example). Abel is thus rightly called pious and a lover of God, while Cain is a "philautos," a lover of himself.2 The Wakefield Cain and Abel treats his reluctant and dishonest dividing up of his sheaves with raucous humor.3
In some images Cain slays Abel with a club formed from a tree branch, as in the second picture at right and this example. In others he uses an axe (example) or simply strangles him with his hands (example).
The second context in which we see Abel is exemplified in the picture at the top of this page. From at least the 4th century Abel's sacrifice was memorialized in the Eucharistic Prayer, the central section of the Christian liturgy, along with those of Abraham and Melchizedech.4 For this reason we will sometimes see images of the three sacrifices together, as above, or of just two (example).
Taking the two episodes together, Abel is both priest and victim and thus like Christ.5 This may explain the interesting iconography in this illustration in a 14th-century manuscript, where Eve holds the child Abel on his lap and presses her face to his just as in so many images of the Madonna and Child.
Genesis 4 ends with a survey of the generations of Cain's offspring, concluding with Lamech and his sons. Two of those sons figure importantly in the Genesis Relief at Orvieto Cathedral: Tubalcain, the inventor of metallurgy and thus of warfare; and Jubal, the first person to use musical instruments. Because of a remark by Isidore cited in the Glossa Ordinaria, Lamech himself was believed to be the man who accidentally killed his ancestor Cain while out hunting.6 This event was dramatized in several medieval plays and is illustrated in the Holkham Bible Picture Book and elsewhere.7
Prepared 2015-01-06 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-09-16, 2016-12-13, 2020-07-04.
Abel, Melchizedech, and Abraham, 7th century, Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna.