GOD PROVIDES: ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’ by Caravaggio (1603)

This is the period of the Baroque and Caravaggio is regarded its father. While the Mannerist school of art strongly relied on allegories and metaphors, the Baroque school used intensified drama and emotions to evolve and involve the viewer into the narrative. Backed by the Counter Reformation, the Baroque catered to educate and enhance the faith of ordinary laymen through elaborate, extra-ordinary forms of art. The surge of this era is witnessed and echoed in today’s painting by Caravaggio titled ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’; painted for Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII.

Through the centuries the episode of the ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ for the Christians or the ‘Akedah’ (binding of Isaac) for the Jews has stimulated heated interpretations. Is it a story of a cruel God? or a deluded Abraham? Is it a story of religion at its worst or faith at its best? Or is it a story of divine providence?

Caravaggio, through his brush, places us up close to the scene of the sacrifice, pursuing a first-hand interpretation and understanding.

It is the climax of the story. The moment is tense and full of suspense; the figures are stressed. The Angel firmly freezes Abraham’s hand; Abraham clutches the knife and pins down his only son Isaac while Isaac shrieks. In a fraction the future would be determined. The obscurity and aggressive naturalism of the scene reflects the turbulence in Caravaggio’s own life. Regarded a rabble-rouser, Caravaggio was often caught in rebellious assaults, crime and even murder.

Through his painting, Caravaggio captures the divine in the earthly realm. He intertwines the two worlds through a sensational struggle between unconditional cruelty and unconditional loyalty. Notice the two groups as they connect and dialogue on parallel fronts. The first forming the spiritual composes of the Angel, Abraham and the Ram. The second consisting of the earthly is represented through the figures of Abraham, the knife and the boy Isaac.

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