Cain and Abel: The Iconography
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.

HOME PAGE

SHOWN ABOVE:
Abel, Melchizedech, and Abraham, 7th century, Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna.

OTHER IMAGES

The first of the three Cain-and-Abel panels at Monreale Cathedral, Palermo: Both brothers offer sacrifice, but only Abel's offering is accepted. See further details on the description page.


Second of the three panels: Cain murders Abel. See further details on the description page)


Third panel: God curses Cain. See further details on the description page.

MORE IMAGES

  • 1310-31: In a bas-relief at Orvieto Cathedral, Cain's club is topped by three orb shapes, as if it were a whole tree in leaf.
  • 1351-60: In a fresco in Pomposa Abbey the sacrifices of Cain and Abel are flanked by the sin of their parents on the left and the murder of Abel on the right.
  • 1807-13: The Sacrifice of Abel on the west façade of Milan Cathedral.

NAMES

  • Cain's name is sometimes spelled Caim or Caym

ALSO SEE

NOTES

1 Glossa Ordinaria, I, 114. For the fire at the dedication of the Temple, see II Chronicles 7:1. For the discrediting of the prophets of Baal, see I Kings 18:20-40.

2 Glossa Ordinaria, ibid.

3 The Killing of Abel, 57-256 (Bevington, 277-82). Cain behaves similarly, though less humorously, in the Chester Creation (Deimling, I, 41-42) and the N. Town Cain and Abel 92-134 (Cawley, 30-31).

3 The Eucharistic Prayer in Ambrose's 4th-century De Sacramentis (VI:27) asks God to accept the present sacrifice as he did those of Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedech. The 6th-century Gelasian Sacramentary shows virtually the same formula being used at Rome.

4 Mâle, 143.

5 Glossa Ordinaria, I, 102: "The Hebrews say that Lamech lived so long that he went blind, and that he had a youth who guided him on his way. When he went hunting he pointed his arrow to where the youth indicated, and it happened that he killed Cain, who was lying in some bushes. And this is what he said [paraphrasing Genesis 4:23b] – 'I have killed a man in my wounding, (that is, by the wound that I caused). Not a beast but a man did I kill, so in my anger I killed the youth as well'" (my translation).

6 Woolf, 135.

HOME PAGE