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

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.

Abraham partakes in both the conversations. While his mind is directed towards the spiritual; his body acts in the physical. What is interesting is that while the spiritual presents a dialogue of peace, the physical cries terror and agony.

We are compelled to pursue the earthly through the deep and dreadful gaze of Isaac. The ‘child of laughter’ screams in horror, his mouth agape, his muscles tense and his skin pale. Twisted, his arms are pinned to his back. His father Abraham pushes him against the wood as his fingers dig into the boy’s innocent face. Aghast, Isaac almost beseeches the viewer to relieve and release him.

Isaac was a delight to his elderly parents and yet Caravaggio presents Abraham as a cold hearted, father who seems indifferent to his son’s struggle. His gestures are ambiguous for his obedience is greater than the battle within his heart. He puts on a hard front ignoring his son’s tormenting howls. For it was not just his son whom he was about to sacrifice but his heart as well.

The deadly menacing blade stands out against the whiteness of Isaac’s shoulder. The sharpness of the edge and its honed tip suggests that the slightest shift would provoke the bloody sacrificial cut. The streams of blood would coincide with the blood red mantle worn by the father. All is set, the knife is raised. But then Lo and Behold! In walks the angel with the much-awaited ‘O Abraham! O faithful man! Your only son, he is not the one, Behold the ram’

What is alluring is that the angel does not descend from above in glorious swirls. Rather he enters the scene on the same plane as that of Abraham. Abraham turns towards the young messenger startled and perplexed. The divine attendant points his index finger at the next sacrificial victim, and this sacrificial victim is delightfully fascinating and thought provoking.

Notice that Caravaggio’s ram is displayed not amongst thickets. Rather the ram stands in solitary attention, ignoring the young boy’s yelps. It centres its focus on the angel and the spiritual conversation at hand. The ram consents in free-will to partake in the sacrifice and offer his life on behalf of Isaac. Its head would neatly and perfectly fit into the place once Isaac’s head is withdrawn.

Who then does the ram embody? Undoubtedly the Lamb of God! For just as Isaac carried the wood needed for the sacrifice on the mount, Jesus carried his Cross to Mount Calvary. For just as Isaac was bound, so was Jesus. God provided His only beloved Son to offer Himself as the sacrificial victim for the salvation of humankind. For upon the altar of Calvary was slain, a sacrifice of nobler name; a sacrifice to wash away our sin and stain!

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557

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One thought on “GOD PROVIDES: ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’ by Caravaggio (1603)”

  • Once again, a really great read, Joynel! The description is so vivid, it makes these art based series’ really enjoyable.

    May I bring one thing to your attention, the images are clear but the really high contrast makes it difficult to see the detail while viewing on mobile devices.


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