The Punishment of Cain

Oil on canvas, 1836, by Théodore Chassériau, (1819 – 1856)

There are some fundamental “problems” with the parable of Cain and Abel which have always troubled my sense of logic and, I imagine, equally puzzled or wryly amused the artists who have chosen to depict the subject. Cain, we are told in Genesis, was a farmer while Abel was a shepherd. An agriculturalist and pastoralist: both very noble occupations and yet while both make sacrifices to God from the yields of their labour, God inexplicably accepts the offering from the shepherd and rejects that from the farmer. Why? We are never told, but this would seem to establish the principle of competitive biases from which man has never entirely been freed. Are the roots of capitalism to be found as far back as Old Testament lore? Cain is also the older brother, so Abel’s lamb being favoured by God over Cain’s crop is in theory a hierarchical negation which would embitter any man: Cain, by virtue of his age, had logically been farming longer and therefore working harder than his younger sibling. Why is the earnestness of this labour not recognized? In addition, there was seemingly no physical action which differentiated the work of either man which implies that God’s favourtisim was subjective rather than objective. Did God intentionally establish a set of prejudices which were designed to provoke an all too common and natural human response (the jealous rage)?

Indeed, such rejection bitterly stoked Cain’s ire and in a fit of jealousy he drew his brother into a field where he slayed him. Abel’s shed blood slaked the ground, from which we are told no further crops would grow. But why, necessarily? As punishment Cain is set to wander the earth in the land of Nod – the subject here depicted in Chassériau’s treatment – and because he can no longer farm, he thereafter founded the first known city. (The lineage of his wife is a touchy digression we will overlook for now!) Thus Cain was the first murderer and Abel the first victim of homicide. But it wasn’t just homicide – was it? – it was fratricide, an act which carries with it a whole raft of psychoanalytic implications and motivations. Why are brothers destined so often to fiercely rival one another? Eteocles and Polyneices, Remus and Romulus, Karna and Arjuna, Clarence and Gloucester: the list is comprehensive. And yet from such enmity often decisive industriousness arises: in the case of Romulus, the colossal Roman Empire. In the case of Cain, the first known city; the first collective gathering of resources leading to mass, mutually beneficial enterprise. Is sibling rivalry the progenitor of progress? Was God’s design based on a wily scheme to trigger early man’s latent instinct for antagonistic productivity? That industry philosophically originates in jealousy, anger and violence is somehow perhaps quite apt given what we now know about the ruthlessness attached to the concept of the modern conglomerate. In more humanist terms, the parable also raises the interesting question about pretensions to equality: Cain and Abel both worship the same God in the same way and yet the outcome of this very act of worship is differentiated and so falls into fierce violence. In other words, the source of the original religious war is explained: something that has blighted mankind ever since.

In Dante’s The Inferno, (XX 126) Cain is suggested to have wandered so far in the course of his punishment that he arrives on the moon where he settles with a bundle of sticks. Thus the moon’s shadows personifying a face have a legendary origin. There is something decidedly lunar about the topographical rendering of the landscape in Chassériau’s painting as to suggest he was influenced by Dante. It is positively devoid of all life and vegetation. It is rocky and barren and largely scant of the life-giving attributes of the sun. It is a quintessential wasteland where the contrast of the light and dark tones adds a distinct note of immediate pathos. The louring clouds are dark, brooding and heavy: the transcendental symbolism or how this transfers as the weight of guilt onto the stricken family is apparent and even perhaps too obviously foregrounded and yet we can be left in no doubt about the moral message underpinning the subject: sin is the absence of light. Cain and his family comprise the only vertical elements of the scene which form a kind of detachment between themselves and the landscape, thus accentuating the feeling of hostility and alienation. Surprisingly the focal light source falls on Cain’s wife and not on Cain himself. Her milky rendering reveals the influence of the master portrait artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres who was a great mentor and formative influence on the young Chassériau (only sixteen years old when this painting was undertaken). The implication is clear: the sins of the husband are visited and projected onto the wife and descendants. The light metaphorically highlights the shame that is now forecast onto Cain’s wife and his children while he walks a step behind, a downcast and remorseful figure of unease and isolation.

A touch of irony is introduced by Chassériau: is that a sheep skin Cain uses as a loin cloth? Is this a symbol of the remembrance of his slain shepherd brother, a signal that Cain will never be allowed to forget the fratricide he has committed, the further dishonour brought to his already fallen parents, Adam and Eve? The heads of three of the family members are bowed or averted as if they cannot show their faces they are so contrite with shame. In a manner, the crime has stripped them of agency completely, almost superseded their individual personalities; they are destined now to be defined by a singular act. Only the older boy, Enoch, looks back up at his mother with a degree of concern and earnestness, almost willing her to overcome her tormented preoccupation with her fall from grace and doomed fate, perhaps the single positive suggestion in the composition which points to the future possibility of redemption and regeneration.

Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.


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