This engraving is a vertical format. Dominating the foreground are three figures on a slight hill with a large tree. In front of the tree is the corpse of Abel (a strong young man with flowing cloth around his waist) with his head in the shadows. Kneeling over him are Adam and Eve. Adam, a muscular older man with a white beard, clutches his hands together and leans toward his dead son. Eve, covered only from the waist down, throws her arms out in the air above her son and moves towards him on her knees. The tree behind them has a sturdy trunk that splits into three heavy branches and these limbs echo the placement of Eve's back and right arm. On the right is a road leading to a background scene.In the far background Cain and Abel are shown making offerings to God on altars, with Abel’s offering rising higher than Cain’s. In the middle ground along the road, Cain is shown raising a weapon to kill Abel. At the bottom of the work are four lines of text and a signature.
Derived from the Old Testament story (Genesis 4) of the death of Abel at Cain’s hands, Saenredam imagines the moment when Adam and Eve find the corpse of their youngest son. In the background, along a path leading to the corpse, two scenes that precede the main scene are visible. In the very back, Cain and Abel bring offerings to God on separate altars, and only Abel’s offering rises into the air showing that it is pleasing to God. The next scene along the path shows Cain raising a weapon in the air to murder his struggling brother. In the foreground, only Adam, Eve, and Abel’s corpse are visible: Cain is nowhere to be seen. The fact that the figures are clothed—albeit scantily—alludes to Genesis 3 where Adam and Eve committed what Christians interpret as the Original Sin by eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. As a result of Original Sin, Adam and Eve suddenly had shame at their naked bodies. Adam and Eve must no doubt feel some responsibility in the death of their son, as their Original Sin made sin in Cain possible. This trio of figures also evokes a lamentation over Christ's body. Perhaps the absence of Cain is meant to remind the viewer of the ultimate guilt of Adam and Eve.
Jan Saenredam was one of the most talented engravers in the circle of Hendrick Goltzius in Haarlem. He produced over 115 engravings, most of which were based on the designs of other artists, such as Goltzius, Abraham Bloemaert, and Cornelis van Haarlem.
The present print is Plate 6 from a series of six prints that Saenredam executed in 1604 (dated on the first print) after designs of Bloemaert on the history of Adam and Eve, beginning with Adam's naming of the animals and ending with the first parents lamenting over the death of their son Abel. Our print shows the latter scene, with Adam and Eve kneeling over the body of their son. The great tree behind them enframes and anchors the scene, its branches complementing their movements. Encapsulating several narrative moments, the print shows in the background smoke billowing up from Abel's burnt offering, signifying God's acceptance of his gift, while the smoke from Cain's offering barely rises. In the middle ground Cain is represented slaying his brother.
This is a superb impression, exhibiting the delicate use of line and the silvery tonality that Saenredam achieved in his late prints. It is the first state of three, before the plate was reworked in the second state, and before the address of the publisher Isack Houwenes was added in the third. A drawing by Bloemaert for this print is in a private collection in Brussels. The collector's marks on our impression, those of William Esdaile, Samuel Leith, and Bindon Blood, attest its history in several great 19th-century British collections.
Gallery Rotation Fall 2010
The Netherlands, 1565–1607
Adam and Eve Lamenting over the Corpse of Abel
Engraving on laid paper
Museum purchase made possible by the Jean Paul Slusser Memorial Fund, 1996/2.3
The last in a series of six engravings devoted to the lives of Adam and Eve, this print depicts them mourning over the body of their son Abel. A great tree frames the grief-stricken parents and echoes their gestures with its limbs, while also separating the scene from the events leading to Abel’s death. In the distant background smoke billows up from Abel’s burnt offering, signifying God’s acceptance of his gift, while the smoke from his brother Cain’s offering barely rises. In the middle ground Cain, driven by jealously, murders his brother.
Signed in image, below figures: A. Bloemaert invt./J. Saenredam Sculp. 6 Inscribed in plate, below image: Hornâ fruge Cain, lecto que aram imbuit agno/Gratus Abel: Tum felle Cain accensus, et ira,/Sanguine fraterno terram inces favit avitam:/Heu lessum faciunt natorum in coede parentes!/ T Sereuelius (?)
Collector's marks: Inscribed in brown ink, below image, l.r.: WE. [monogram of William Esdaile, Lugt 2617}; (verso) l.l.: WE [same monogram]; in graphite, c.c.: c/a Leith/Nov.12/1840 [inscription by Bindon Blood, Lugt 3011]