Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Caravaggio's Abraham and Isaac (1603)

It is surely one of the strangest passages in the Bible.  God tells Abraham, one of the most devoted of servants, to sacrifice his own child, Isaac, as a test of his devotion.  As it says in Genesis 22:

And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.
And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.
And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.
And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.
And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.
And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son

Where to begin?  First off, Abraham does not attempt to sacrifice his son in a blind panic upon hearing the voice of God; instead, with premeditation and malice aforethought, he lures the boy to a secluded spot.  Divesting himself of his henchmen, he willfully takes his own unsuspecting son away from witnesses before murdering him with a knife and burning his body.  (He even makes the poor blighter carry the wood to be used for his funeral pyre!)  Fewer acts of religious mania found in the Bible are more unsettling than this, not the least because the interpretation is that Abraham is somehow virtuous in his fidelity to the letter of God’s law.  The rosy patina that covers this incident is the result of thousands of years of religious compliance and our hesitancy to view the Bible critically.  Surely had Abraham lived in 2012, as opposed to some undetermined time before Christ, he would be scooted off to some well-padded giggle room where he could not hurt himself nor his children. 

And what would our thoughts of Abraham (and God, for that matter) be if he was successful in his murderous intent?  And how would we credit this story is God asked a mother to murder her daughter?

We have in the past looked at the work of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 18 July 1610), the original “bad boy” of Italian Renaissance art.  Despite a wayward career -- regularly punctuated by bad behavior, crime and any and all manner of vice -- Caravaggio was capable of illustrating the human condition with a deep, if somber, sensitivity.  It is not just his dramatic and cinematic use of light that is arresting, but the emotion – and the often high cost of emotion – etched on the faces of his subjects that so mark his remarkable talent.

This 1603 depiction of the story of Abraham and Isaac was most likely commissioned by Cardinal Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII.  His home, the Palazzo Barberini, today houses Italy's Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica (National Gallery of Ancient Art).  This magnificent museum will be featured in a later Jade Sphinx post.

Caravaggio responded to the story of Abraham and Isaac with his customary empathy and élan.   It is possible that the story moved Caravaggio more than we know, as there is a later 1605 painting that is possibly in his hand that depicts the same moment.  Caravaggio’s father died when the boy was six years old, and such premature leavings are often seen by children as acts of abandonment or punishment.

This painting is fully as fascinating as the Biblical myth which inspires it.  Note Abraham’s face – there is neither remorse nor pity in his countenance, simply determination.  As the angel excitedly countermands God’s order, Abraham simply looks like one awaiting further direction or confirmation.  He could be the poster-boy of a millennia of emotionally absent fathers.

The figuration placement is also remarkable.  Isaac, nude, is literally bent before his father, who brandishes an exceedingly phallic knife.  The intimation of violation, whether conscious or not, is striking and terrifying.  More interesting still, Isaac is not dissimilar in his features from scores of other Caravaggio self-portraits.

The angel is remarkable, as well.  His face is contorted in alarm – certainly not the expected visage of a heavenly visitor – and his wings are nearly outside the frame of the image.  In coloration, he is much like Abraham – warmly colored and human.  In terms of coloration and interaction, if nothing else, the zealot Abraham is more connected with the angel than Abraham and his own son.

Which brings us to Isaac – Caravaggio’s masterstroke of the picture.  The figure – his features, his coloration – is oddly reminiscent of Caravaggio’s self-portrait as the sick Bacchus.  Why is Isaac so pale, compared to Abraham and the angel (and the lamb, for that matter!).  The look of stark terror is impressive, but there also seems to be more than a touch of shame, and sense that the boy has been degraded as well as assaulted.  It is interesting to wonder how much – and why – Caravaggio may have identified with young Isaac.

The background is also suggestive – the houses in the distance tell the viewer that this is not only an occurrence remote from human proximity, but human intervention as well.  For a moment, Isaac is truly alone and most certainly damned.

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