Glencairn Museum News | Number 8, 2012
Located in Glencairn’s Medieval Gallery, this exquisite marble capital shows the sacrifices of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. According to the story (Genesis 4:2-5), Abel was a shepherd and Cain raised crops. The brothers each pledged a portion of their produce to God, though only Abel’s was accepted. This choice incited Cain’s anger and jealousy, and he murdered his brother.
The capital’s central face depicts a tense moment: whose sacrifice will be chosen? The brothers tip their faces upward to Heaven in expectation. At left, Abel presents a lamb, nestled in a cloth. At right, Cain lifts a sheaf of wheat heavenwards, his hands carefully draped. The brothers’ covered hands signal the sanctity of their gifts, intended for God. The placement of the upraised sheaf at the center of the composition suggests the sculptor has captured Cain at the instant he offers his gift, and most medieval viewers would have known already that this was not the favored sacrifice.
The Bible does not describe how God expressed his preference for Abel’s sacrifice, though tradition states that a sign of fire was sent. However, this detail was open to interpretation by medieval artists, and in other examples God is shown pointing directly to Abel from Heaven. In the Glencairn example, the sculptor chose to indicate God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice through the intervention of an angel. On the left-hand face of the capital, the angel swoops down, and his ruffled garment indicates his haste to arrive on the scene. The angel soars over Abel’s faithful herding dog, panting as it watches over the pasture, as well as three sheep from his flock, which are carefully stacked on top of each other to create the illusion of depth. Oblivious to this peaceful scene, the angel approaches Abel, a tiny cross in his right hand. He touches Abel’s shoulder, quietly acknowledging God’s preference for his gift. The angel’s bare-handed touch contrasts with the brothers’ fully-covered hands, and this direct physical contact is a particularly poignant indicator that Abel was chosen by God.
Since Abel’s flock is shown behind him, the viewer might expect to find fields of wheat behind Cain on the right-hand side of the capital. Instead, a ferocious beast with the head of a lion, the wings of a raptor and the coiled tail of a serpent crouches, its body contorted to fit into the space. The monster appears to emerge from three tiers of clouds at the upper right-hand corner, as if sent from above. Out of its terrifying mouth darts a long tongue—actually a snake!—that stings the back of Cain’s head, decisively rejecting his sacrifice.
The sculptor has skillfully condensed many elements of the story into the narrow space of the capital, alluding to future events as well as fleshing out other ideas related to the story. For example, the beast creeping up behind Cain foreshadows his murder of Abel by giving monstrous form to his sin. On the other side, the depiction of Abel’s flock reminds the viewer that he was a shepherd. Medieval Christians often compared Abel to Jesus, the shepherd of the Christian faithful. In addition, the cross in the angel’s hand alludes to Jesus’ crucifixion, similar to Abel’s wrongful death.
The capital’s place of origin is not known, though its carving on three sides indicates that it topped a half column that served to shore up a wall or pier. Its excellent condition suggests it was inside a church, protected from the elements, where it would have perched high above the congregation.
The Cain and Abel capital was researched this summer by Dr. Julia Perratore, Glencairn’s Curatorial Fellow from the University of Pennsylvania. According to Dr. Perratore: “What impresses me about this capital is how it so succinctly characterizes each brother and so efficiently condenses several moments from the story into a restricted space. Examining it is a highly rewarding experience—like opening a package full of items and slowly pulling out the contents to examine them. Though the mysteries of medieval art often reveal themselves slowly to modern viewers, they are worth taking the time to discover!”
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