Like the earlier David and Goliath we examined by Titian, this representation of Abraham and Isaac is now in the church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice. It was originally made as a ceiling painting for the Santo Spirito in Isola; Titian’s other ceiling painting for that church depicted Cain and Abel. (If the composition and foreshortening seems “funny,” remember this would ideally be seen from below.)
Titian was born Tiziano Vecellio in Pieve di Cardore in 1489 (dying in 1576, quite an old man by Renaissance standards). He was perhaps the greatest Venetian painter of his era; his contemporaries called him The Sun Amidst Small Stars (after the final line of Dante’s Paradiso). Titian was equally at home with landscapes, portraits and large narrative pictures. Despite his compositional felicity and superior draughtsmanship it is perhaps is his unique mastery of color upon which his reputation rests. His style changed often throughout his lifetime, but his serious study and application of color was a constant throughout his career. His later works were, perhaps, muted compared to his earlier pictures, but his overall approach also grew in subtlety.
By any yardstick, this is a remarkable picture. The painting is characterized by the spiraling movement of the figures, the counterpoised pose and the strong intersecting diagonals. Like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, Titian chooses the moment when the angel appears just before Abraham can murder his son in an act of devotion to God. But it would be hard to imagine a painting more unlike the other two – let’s start by looking at his characterization.
If Caravaggio’s Abraham is an unthinking zealot and Rembrandt’s a confused duffer, Titian’s muscled prophet seems to our eyes more like Samson or Hercules. Though he holds Isaac’s head down (like Rembrandt), this sword thrust would most likely cleave Isaac’s head from his body. (And note, too, that this is no simple knife – it is a sword. This Abraham is a figure of potency, indeed.)
The angel here is unlike the celestial interlopers of Caravaggio (who seems oddly human) and Rembrandt (who is definitely otherworldly) – this angel is more in line with the putti seen decorating various religious paintings of the period. That so simple and childlike an angel can stop so massive a human seems incredible; however, the face of Titian’s angel seems to us the most urgent of the three. This angel will stop this madness, regardless of his relative size.
Which brings us, as is almost always the case in this story, to the artist’s depiction of Isaac. Caravaggio showed us an adolescent clearly terrified and abused; Rembrandt a heavenly youth of beautiful whiteness, his face brutally hidden by his father’s massive fist. The Isaac of Lievens is clearly conflicted, unable to see the angel above him and clearly uncomfortable in his father’s grasp. But Titian’s Isaac is different – this is no adolescent, it is a young boy. And despite straddling a funeral pyre, with his father holding his head and face away, he seems curiously nonplussed. This Isaac is too innocent of his father’s intention, too young to fully appreciate that he is about to die, and that makes the scene doubly horrible. (Indeed, his face is eerily similar to that of the ass and the lamb, all of them, to Abraham, little better than dumb animals. Note that the older man seems to stand on one and put his full weight on the other.)
Note, too, that, like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, here Isaac seems to be lit from another source. Caravaggio’s Isaac is horribly white – perhaps in terror, perhaps rendered so by the artist in a mode of self-identification. Rembrandt’s Isaac looks as if a hot spotlight lit his youthful lines, focusing the picture on his boyish innocence. Titian, however, aligns the light of heaven alongside his Isaac – the clouds are highlighted with white, heavenly light, throwing Isaac’s simple robe into stark outlines.
Interesting, too, and again like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, Titian cannot help but fetishize Isaac. The most luminous focal point of the picture is Isaac’s bottom, and it can not be unintentional. There is something in this myth that seems to inspire in even the most devout of souls dark contemplations of parental abuse, sexual and otherwise.
Though this is bound to raise hackles, to my eye Titian’s picture is far superior to that of Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Lievens. Possibly because of its intended use as a ceiling picture, the composition is more dynamic, more energetic and more frenetic than the other pictures we’ve looked at in this series. (Note the train of Abraham’s robe trailing behind him.) Titian was also a draughtsmam of prodigious ability: the rich musculature of Abraham and the soft lines of both Isaac and the angel are wonderfully captured, and the triangular quality of the composition keeps the eye going from victim to angel with zealot locked between them.
Also, Titian’s sense of color cuts through the haze of sanctity that usually envelops the story, making more clear and more terrible just what was about to happen here.