Caravaggio's Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham Due to Divine Intervention

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First of all, there are several juxtapositions present throughout the painting. For example, there is a dichotomous relationship between the cold sensuality in the foreground and the pastoral beauty in the background. Secondly, Caravaggio manages to convey the sensational struggle present between the unconditional loyalty that Abraham has towards God’s command as well as the repulsive cruelty that involves the imminent sacrifice of Isaac. The uncertainty as to whether the sacrifice is happening or not intensifies the aura of anticipation. Moreover, the apposition present between the struggling Isaac’s expression of terror and the ram’s placid look adds another layer of nuance. Overall, there are multiple levels of contrasting themes which makes the painting a complex blend of compassion and sadism.

Another peculiar feature is the plethora of symbols embedded within Caravaggio’s painting. The deadly menacing blade with its sharp edge precariously adjacent to Isaac’s neck suggests that the slightest alteration would provoke the bloody sacrificial cut. The streams of blood that would have gushed out of Isaac’s neck is denoted through the excessive blood red mantle draped around Abraham’s waist. Secondly, the heads of Isaac and the ram are set above one another “with the ram’s peaceful head… directly above the abjected face of Isaac”. The animal acts oddly serene offering itself in the situation and can be alluded to Christ’s selfless sacrifice to wash away the sins of humanity. 

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Furthermore, the Lombardian style portrayal of the landscape (perhaps the Alban hills in Rome) instead of the deserted land of Moriah according to the biblical narrative serves a purpose. The building on the hill can be referred to as a church with a baptistery and foreshadows the future birth of the Catholic Church; whilst the diffused light emanating from the background could symbolize the light of divine grace. Another intriguing element within the landscape is the pair of barely discernible figures in the right background which could either represent the two servants that accompanied Abraham and Isaac on the journey, or could represent his wife Sarah and his servant Eliezer who were unaware of this planned sacrifice.

This painting is also part of Caravaggio’s dramatic series of work that employs a combination of realism and tenebrism with vivid tonal contrasts between dark and light. He often worked directly on his canvas using incisions with live posed models rather than using idealized forms or preparatory sketches. The naturalism he embodied when depicting spiritual themes resulted in many of his critics such as Poussin accusing him of “destroying painting” through Caravaggio’s supposed act of representation by imitation. However, these accusations are proven wrong through Caravaggio’s naturalism which is “tempered by iconographic complexities and embedded meanings”. 

This ideology is reinforced in this painting through the meticulous use of hand gestures that appears “naturalistic yet is redolent with connotative meaning”. For example, the imposing angel’s hand restraining Abraham’s wrist or commanding Abraham to choose the ram, and Abraham’s forceful hand grasping Isaac’s squirming neck; collectively signify authority whilst the concealment of Isaac’s hands emphasizes his helplessness. Another aspect is how Caravaggio manages to capture the divine in the earthly realm by portraying the angel in the same plane as Abraham contrary to earlier depictions of this narrative. Moreover, through the humanization of the celestial being, Abraham as well as the spectator is able to partake in the dialogue between the spiritual and earthly realm. 

An interesting observation that reinforces the altering perception of the angel is how the model Cecco Boneri was the face for both the mortal Isaac as well as the divine being. In addition to that, this painting belongs to his category of biblical re-enactments portraying a snapshot of the action, but not the action itself. Hence the piece lacks the kind of action that would give the narrative processional power, instead it becomes a painting where no story can be told except what is in the title. Despite the minimal action, Caravaggio manages to highlight the faces of the victims or potential victims through a series of his decapitation paintings: Medusa-1598, Judith and Holofernes-1599, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist-1608. 

He captivates the viewer through the intensity of the victim’s gaze, and depiction of the moment of shock through the opened orifice, agasp in exhalation. Another innovative feature in the painting is how he draws attention to the victim Isaac who cries out to the spectator but is left out in the implicit conversation occurring between Abraham, Isaac and the Ram. As Arenas stated, “You’re involved. You’re a witness to these horrors. You are almost an accomplice”; and hence Caravaggio alters the theme of the painting from a religious discourse to an ethical conundrum. 

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