Cain and Abel, and the sons of Noah: Stories about brothers, and more shameful nudity

Cain and Abel, 1542-44
Santa Maria della Salute, Venice

This is the second in a series of posts about Stories in Art. The first one was about Adam and Eve, and of course, after that comes the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4). The story of Cain and Abel is incredibly short and incredibly fascinating, but paintings of Cain and Abel are actually kind of boring. Stories about women in the hands of male painters are way more interesting, but we need to get through two important stories before we can get back to the interesting paintings. This is a short post about brothers: the sons of Adam and the sons of Noah.

Cain and Abel were brothers. God favored Abel, so Cain killed Abel. I know very little about the very complicated relationships between brothers so I won’t say anything here about competition, favoritism, jealousy or the inability of primitive men to express their emotions and deal with their feelings non-violently. Nope, I won’t say anything here about that, but I will show you a painting of Cain killing Abel. By itself, this painting is really not that interesting, but Titian painted this for Venice’s Santa Maria della Salute, and he paired it with two other scenes of men raising their arms ready to strike. Click on this image, then click on ‘Other works at Santa Maria della Salute’ to see this painting paired with David poised to strike Goliath and Abraham poised to sacrifice Isaac.


Carlo Saraceni
Drunkenness of Noah
Private collection

The Book of Genesis is full of stories that make us wish we could ask the authors a few follow-up questions and The Drunkenness of Noah (Genesis 9:20) is certainly one of them. We all know Noah’s story: God told Noah to build an ark, Noah and his family spent 40 days on a boat with two of every animal and then had to rebuild after the flood.  The story is rich with vivid imagery, but some artists opted to focus on a strange but important scene that happens after all that. Noah built a vineyard, and he got so drunk that he took his clothes off. His son Ham saw this and told his brothers Shem and Japheth about it. Instead of doing nothing and talking about it like Ham had done, Shem and Japheth went to their father backwards so they couldn’t see him, and they covered him up. This painting by Saraceni does a wonderful job of contrasting Ham with his brothers. By depicting Shem and Japheth with their arms blocking their eyes, it calls attention to the important difference between how the brothers handled the situation.

These are very simple stories about right and wrong that illustrate what not to do. God punished both Cain and Ham harshly by sentencing them to hardships and favoring the descendants of their brothers. In doing so, God established the line of the chosen ones from among the brothers who didn’t do wrong. The descendants of Cain all died in the flood, and the descendants of Ham (the Canaanites) became slaves to the descendants of his brothers. Cain’s brother Seth became the ancestor of Noah, and Noah’s son Shem becomes the ancestor of Abraham, David and Jesus.

We’ll revisit the theme of brothers again when we get to Jacob. Until then, we have the incredibly creepy paintings of Lot and his daughters to look forward to.

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