The Sacrifice of Isaac

Keywords: SacrificeIsaac

Work Overview

Sacrifice of Isaac
Artist Caravaggio
Year 1603
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 104 cm × 135 cm (41 in × 53 in)
Location Uffizi, Florence

The Sacrifice of Isaac is the title of two paintings from c. 1598 - 1603 depicting the sacrifice of Isaac. The paintings could be painted by the Italian master Caravaggio (1571–1610) but there is also strong evidence that they may have been the work of Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, a talented early member of the Caravaggio following who is known to have been in Spain about 1617-1619.

The Sacrifice of Isaac in the Piasecka-Johnson Collection in Princeton, New Jersey, is a disputed work that was painted circa 1603. According to Giulio Mancini, a contemporary of Caravaggio and an early biographer, the artist, while convalescing in the Hospital of the Consolazione, did a number of paintings for the prior who took them home with him to Seville. (The hospital had a Spanish prior from 1593 to around mid-1595). This would date the work to the mid-1590s, but it seems far more sophisticated than anything else known from that period of Caravaggio's career, and Peter Robb, in his 1998 biography of Caravaggio, dates it to about 1598. The model for Isaac bears a close resemblance to the model used for the John the Baptist now in the museum of Toledo cathedral, which suggests that the two should be considered together. The presence of paintings by Caravaggio in Spain at an early date is important for the influence they may have had on the young Velázquez, but there is also strong evidence that they may have been the work of Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, a talented early member of the Caravaggio following who is known to have been in Spain about 1617-1619.

The painting shows the moment when Abraham, about to sacrifice his son Isaac in obedience to God's command, is stayed by an angel who offers him a ram in Isaac's place. The scene is lit with the dramatically enhanced chiaroscuro (tenebrism) with which Caravaggio was to revolutionize Western art, falling like a stage spotlight on the face of the youthful angel; the faces of Abraham and Isaac are in shadow, but show acute emotions; the gestures of the hands are acutely eloquent, the angel's hand resting on the ram's head in imitation of the way Abraham's left hand rests on the head of his son, the Patriarch's other hand holding the knife but already relaxing as he listens to the angel. The three figures and the ram are shown without background or context, with nothing to distract from the powerful psychological drama as God's promise is delivered.

The second Sacrifice of Isaac is housed in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. According to the early biographer Giovanni Bellori, Caravaggio painted a version of this subject for Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII, and a series of payments totalling one hundred scudi were made to the artist by Barberini between May 1603 and January 1604. Caravaggio had previously painted a Portrait of Maffeo Barberini, which presumably pleased the cardinal enough for him to commission this second painting.

Isaac has been identified as Cecco Boneri, who appeared as Caravaggio's model in several other pictures. Recent X-ray analysis showed that Caravaggio used Cecco also for the angel, and later modified the profile and the hair to hide the resemblance.

The expression on Isaac's face says it all: he is scared to death, with his father about to cut his throat. At this exact moment, an angel intervenes, suggesting that Abraham had better sacrifice a sheep.

Please note the sharp contrast between the unpleasant scene in the foreground and the rustic landscape in the background.

This painting was most likely commissioned by Cardinal Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII.

A few years later Caravaggio would make another painting with this popular theme.

Caravaggio painted a version of this subject for Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII and this could be the picture.

The artist thrusts the action to the front of the picture frame like a sculpted frieze. Old Abraham, with features reminiscent of the second St Matthew, is intercepted in the act of slitting his son's throat by an admonishing angel who with his right hand prevents the murder and with his left points to the substitute victim. Light directs the viewer to scan the scene from left to right as it picks out the angel's shoulder and left hand, the quizzical face of Abraham, the right shoulder and terrified face of Isaac and finally the docile ram. A continuous movement links the back of the angel's neck to Isaac's profile; and angel and boy have a family likeness.

Caravaggio combines a hint of horror with pastoral beauty. In the foreground the sharp knife is silhouetted against the light on Isaac's arm. In the distance is one of Caravaggio's rare landscapes, a glimpse perhaps of the Alban hills round Rome and an acknowledgement of the skill of his one serious rival, Annibale Carracci, whose landscapes were particularly admired.

Born Michelangelo Merisi, the painter took the name of his birthplace, Caravaggio, a town in Lombardy, Italy. As one of the most puzzled and tumultuous lives of art, Caravaggio produced work both deeply human and intensely religious. His graphic depictions of religious figures caused great offense during his time, as much as he became the most famous artist in Rome of his time. He has also captured the imagination of the art world in recent revivals of his work.

Orphaned at a young age due to the ravenous plague, the painter found his first studies under Simone Peterzano (1540 – 1596) in 1584, influenced by the work of Titian (1485 – 1576). Caravaggio’s earliest works became known after he joined the workshop of Giuseppe Cesari (1568 – 1640) in Rome. His main task was as a painter of fruits and flowers, producing pieces such as, Boy Peeling Fruit and Boy with a Basket of Fruit from 1593. One of his early works, Young Sick Bacchus is said to be a self portrait done in illness before ending his time in Cesari’s workshop. He later painted another piece depicting Bacchus, the Roman God of Wine, in 1596 which is now in the Uffizi Gallery.

After this the artist sought his own path, going on to form friendships with influential artists of the time, including the Italian architect, Onorio Longhi (1568 – 1619). Together, they were a riotous pair and where famously involved in brawls, one in which lead to a trial for murder. This sent Caravaggio on the run, seeking sanctuary, which he found in the Colonna family, powerful friends connected to his mother, just outside Rome.

Though, before this he created passionate works that revealed a revolutionary artist. His pieces depicting Saint Matthew and of the Madonna, also The Sacrifice of Isaac, The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, Amor Victorious, The Entombment, Death of the Virgin, all caused a great stir in Rome. Perhaps most famously, are his realistic portrayals of Saint Matthew, in The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. His refugee with the Colonna family then garnered him several commissions, from which he created work such as, Madonna of the Rosary and The Seven Works of Mercy.

Though he did not stay long, still fearing retribution for his past crimes, and fled to Malta and then to Sicily. All throughout gaining commissions in a fevered outpouring of painting, producing the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt, Burial of Saint Lucy, The Raising of Lazarus, and Adoration of the Shepherds. The artist is documented to have lived in fear, expelled from Malta and later attacked in Naples. Even after receiving a pardon from the Pope himself for past acts, the artist was again wrongfully imprisoned. Famously, the painter’s life inspired his art, creating a piece, Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, which showed his own face in place of John. With the work he sought to receive pardon from his expellers in Malta, but in the end died en route of its reception in 1610.

The painter is esteemed in a quote from one of Caravaggio’s biographies by Gilles Lambert: “What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.”