The story of Kayin and Hevel, the first murder in history, has intrigued artists throughout the ages.1 The three works displayed here, the miniature from the Alba Bible (c. 1430),2 an ivory panel from the Salerno Cathedral (c. 1084),3 and a woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (c. 1860),4 all portray various parts of the narrative, from the sacrifice through to Kayin's expulsion. The artists vary in their depictions of the brothers, their sacrifices, and the murder itself, allowing for different interpretations of some of the ambiguities and gaps in the original story.
The miniature is divided into three scenes, with the upper half depicting the brothers' sacrifices and the bottom portraying the murder and Hashem's reprimand. In the first scene, Hashem turns towards Hevel to accept his offering of two lambs while ignoring Kayin's gift of vegetation. Kayin then brutally murders his brother by lying on top of him and biting his neck. Hevel's blood seeps into the ground beside him. On the right side of the image, Hashem punishes Kayin, pointing a finger to the left as a sign of banishment.
The artist of the ivory panel also divides his image into three separate scenes, arranged horizontally from left to right. In the first section, a youthful Kayin and Hevel are depicted in parallel poses, lifting their respective offerings to the heavens. God's hand reaches out towards Hevel's lamb, leaving Kayin's bundle of grain rejected. In the next scene, Kayin stomps on Hevel and strangles him. Hashem turns to Kayin in anger, and Kayin cowers in fear.
In contrast to the other works, Schnorr's engraving focuses just on the moment of the sacrifice. In the left foreground, Hevel kneels by his altar, a picture of piety. His hands are clasped and he looks up towards Hashem, as his sacrifice is accepted in a pillar of smoke. The right background of the woodcut portrays Kayin and his sacrifice. Like Hevel, he, too, kneels, but in anger rather than devotion. His faced is turned, not upwards, but with hatred to his brother. His hands clench in a fist as his basket of fruit lies untouched by the altar, the column of smoke settling on its sides.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
The Alba Bible portrays Kayin biting his brother to death,5 while the Salerno ivory panel shows him choking Hevel. How was Hevel murdered? Sefer Bereshit leaves the method and weapon to the reader's imagination. Nonetheless, commentators and artists have proposed various weapons from stone to stick to sword.6 The choices might be relevant to another question: Did Kayin mean to kill, or just to harm, his brother?7 See Kayin – Intentional or Unintentional Murderer.
In the Alba Bible, there is a clear difference in quality between the sacrifices of the two brothers. While Hevel offers two lambs, Kayin presents a somewhat shabby-looking pile of wheat and a smattering of what looks like dried leaves, or perhaps, the outer shells of grain.8 In the Salerno ivory and Schnorr's engraving, on the other hand, the offerings appear much more balanced.9 The different portrayals relate to the question of why Kayin's sacrifice was rejected while Hevel's was accepted. Was the former of lower quality,10 or was the rejection related instead to other deeds or attributes of the brothers?11 See Kayin's Sacrifice Rejected.
How Did They Know?
In both the Alba Bible and the Salerno panel, Hashem reaches out His hand to accept Hevel's offering, while in Schnorr's woodcut Hashem shows His preference / rejection through the rising / collapsing pillars of smoke. Is either of these alluded to in Bereshit? The text does not say how the brothers knew what Hashem thought of their offerings. Many commentators conjecture that fire came down from heaven,12 while others13 propose that the siblings knew of Hashem's preference only based on their subsequent successes and failures in their chosen occupations.14 For further discussion, see Kayin's Sacrifice Rejected.
The artist of the Salerno Cathedral panel portrays the brothers as young boys,15 while Schnorr depicts them as young men, and the Alba Bible renders them as mature adults. Should Kayin be viewed as a rash youth, easy prey to jealousy and not fully aware of the implications of his actions, or was he an adult, expected to control his rage and to be fully responsible for his deeds? Had Hevel already had the chance to bear progeny or was he killed before he could bring descendants into the world? The Biblical text is silent on the matter,16 but Kayin's fear that he might be killed by others suggests that either Adam and Chava had other children or that the brothers themselves already had families of their own.17 See Chronology of Bereshit 2-4.
Was There an Altar?
While both the Alba Bible and Schnorr portray the brothers bringing their offerings on an altar, the Salerno ivory depicts them simply raising the gifts to Hashem. Though most readers assume that there was an altar, the chapter makes no mention of one.18 This raises a question regarding the sacrificial tradition. How did it develop over the ages? Was sacrificial worship always performed similarly across time and culture, or were there different modes of offerings in different times and places? See Sacrifices Before Sinai for more.