Cain and Abel: The Iconography

Example of a motto taken from the Roman Martyrology. Example of a motto taken from the Roman Martyrology. Example of a motto taken from the Roman Martyrology. Example of a motto taken from the Roman Martyrology. Example of a motto taken from the Roman Martyrology.

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 accepted Abel's sacrifice of a lamb, but not Cain's of grain. Cain then murdered Abel out of jealousy, and in punishment God condemned him to vagabondage.

In some images Cain slays Abel with a club, 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.1 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.2 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.3 This event was dramatized in several medieval plays and is illustrated in the Holkham Bible Picture Book and elsewhere.4

Prepared 2015-01-06 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-09-16, 2016-12-13.

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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.

NAMES

  • Cain's name is sometimes spelled Caim or Caym

ALSO SEE

NOTES

1 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.

2 Mâle, 143.

3 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).

4 Woolf, 135/