The Sacrifice of Isaac and the Screaming Realism of Caravaggio

Painting of the Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio.
The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio (oil on canvas, 1603). On display at the Uffizi Gallery. (wikicommons)

What if to satisfy God required the murder a child?  This is the question the great artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio challenges us to grapple with in his gripping work, The Sacrifice of Isaac.  On display at the Uffizi Gallery, the painting tells the story of Abraham, who God demands sacrifice his favorite son as a test of his faith.  The painting is a prime example of the unprecedented visceral realism with which Caravaggio depicted biblical narratives.  It is a sharp departure from the art of the Renaissance, with its muscular nudes and idealized beauty.  This painting instead reflects the harsh piety of the Counter Reformation years, a time when the Church challenged worshippers to actively visualize scenes from the Bible in an unflinching manner.  In painting this and similar works, Caravaggio pushed beyond the paradigms set by Michelangelo and other Renaissance greats to create an entirely new style of painting; one that rejected polite idealized forms in favor of hauntingly realistic images.

History – Caravaggio and the New Spirituality

Portrait of Pope Urban VIII, who commissioned The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio when he was a cardinal.  The Pope appears seated, holding his left hand as if blessing the painter.
Portrait of Pope Urban VIII by Pietro da Cortona (oil on canvas, 1624). (source: GDK/wikicommons)

Completed in 1603, The Sacrifice of Isaac was commissioned by Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII. Upon completion, the painting went into the Cardinal’s private collection, suggesting it was meant for his personal devotional practices. 

Paintings such as this were often used as devotional aids, assisting the worshiper in visualizing biblical scenes while in prayer or meditation.  The future Pope might have spent a considerable period of time sitting before this painting, imagining himself on Mount Moriah as Abraham’s faith was tested.

The idea of visualizing scenes from the Bible had its origins in the Middle Ages and was often associated with St Francis of Assisi.  St Francis urged his followers to contemplate events in the life of Christ not as abstractions from the distant past, but as real events of the type that might occur in the present day. 

 To illustrate his point, in 1223 St Francis famously set up the first Christmas nativity scene in the monastery of Greccio, complete with crib and painted statues depicting Mary, Joseph, and an infant Christ.  He urged his followers to contemplate the scene, imagining the infant Christ as a real child worthy of their compassion.  

During the Counter Reformation, these visualization exercises were formalized into meditative practices, which rose in prominence together with other forms of worship designed to promote a personal relationship with Christ. Perhaps the most famous example of this tradition is St Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.  In the Exercises, Loyola (the founder of the Jesuit Order) encourages meditators to not only contemplate events from the life of Jesus, but actually visualize them as if one had been present as they happened. 

Often in undertaking this, meditators were encouraged to use images of people and places already familiar to them.  Thus a baker might imagine Jesus carrying the cross along the street in front of his store.  The Roman soldiers accompanying Christ might be garbed in the uniforms of the local milita.  Family and friends might serve in place of Jesus’ disciples and even stand in for Christ himself.  This, Loyola believed, would allow meditators to connect with the stories in the Bible on a deeper, emotional level.

Style – Isaac and Abraham Reimagined

Scholars note that Carravagio was deeply influenced by these meditative practices, though the vector by which they became known to him remains heavily debated.  Regardless, its influence is readily apparent in several of Caravaggio’s works, including The Sacrifice of Isaac.  As Loyola recommends, Caravaggio strives to depict a realistic and vivid image.  This begins with Abraham’s cold, practiced grip (almost terrifying in its efficiency) on the back of Isaac’s neck.  The knife held by Abraham is simple and unadorned – a practical tool which a butcher might use to slaughter a lamb.  Even the angel’s forceful grip on Abraham’s wrist is carefully calculated, adding to the sense that this intercession came only in the final moment.

As Loyola suggests, Caravaggio also draws on the familiar.  The landscape in the top right, for instance, looks suspiciously like the countryside around Rome. Caravaggio also uses familiar faces in the painting, with his studio assistant, Cecco Boneri, modelling for both Isaac and the angel.  In so doing, Caravaggio offers an image with a haunting level of familiarity to the viewer, one they could easily imagine occurring on the outskirts of Rome.

Aside from the realism of the piece, Caravaggio also effectively employs his trademark high-contrast light and shadow (chiaroscuro).  The light in this piece appears to originate from above, casting Abraham, Isaac, the angel, and the ram in sharp relief.  Shadows swirl around these bright figures, retreating from the divine light which appears to have entered the scene together with the angel.  The light is almost a tangible entity in this painting, further elevating the tension in this moment of high drama.   

Other paintings by Caravaggio which channel the spirits of Saints Francis and Loyola are The Taking of Christ and The Entombment.  In The Taking of Christ, Caravaggio follows the instructions in Loyola’s Exercises to a tee, imagining a scene from the life of Christ as if it were taking place on the streets of Rome.  Art historian and Caravaggio biographer Andrew Graham-Dixon notes the piece has the feel of the police arresting a suspect in the middle of the night – something Caravaggio would have been familiar with from his many run-ins with the law.

In The Taking of Christ, Jesus is held in Judas’ embrace.  Judas has just kissed Jesus, the act by which he was to identify him to the waiting soldiers.  The act of betrayal committed, Judas stares into Jesus’ face as if searching for a reaction.  Three soldiers appear behind him.  The lead soldier reaches out to grasp Christ – the cold medal of his armor reflecting a harsh light back at the viewer.  Christ looks away, his hands clasped in front of him as if they had just been held in prayer.  The painting is like an avalanche – the cold power of the state collapsing on humanity’s savior. 

The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio.  The painting is dark, as if occurring in the dead of night.  The figures are sparsely lit from an unidentified external source of light.
The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio (oil on canvas, 1602). On display at the National Gallery of Ireland. (wikicommons)

The Entombment is another work by Caravaggio which transports the viewer straight into the world of the gospels.  The painting depicts John the Baptist and Nicodemus lowering the lifeless body of Christ onto a stone slab at the opening of a sepulcher (a type of stone tomb).  Standing behind them is the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Clopas, each mourning in their own way.  Their gestures are almost theatrical, somewhat diminishing the realism of the piece.  But the center of attention is the body of Christ, and here Caravaggio does not pull any punches.  You can feel the weight of the body in Nicodemus’s firm stance and John’s almost precarious grip.  John’s hand opens the wound on Christ’s side as if to emphasize the absence of any sensation.  Most notable of all is Christ’s hand (modeled on Michelangelo’s Pieta’), which hangs lifelessly over the side of the slab.

The Entombment by Caravaggio.  The painting is sparsely lit.  Only the figures and the stone slab have much substance.  Nicodemus looks straight back at the viewer.
The Entombment by Caravaggio (oil on canvas, 1604). On display at Pinacoteca Vaticana. (wikicommons)

Art in Service of Faith

These three pieces by Caravaggio – The Entombment, The Taking of Christ, and The Sacrifice of Isaac carry forward the tradition begun by St Francis and his crib.  They bring the viewer into the Christian story in a manner in which words alone fall short.  In them, we feel the weight of Christ’s lifeless corpse, the cold steel of a soldier’s armor, and hear the terrified scream of a child about to be sacrificed.  To many, these paintings were simply too much, even if they were in alignment with Christian meditative practices then being championed.  To them, art best served the Church with a set of traditional subjects depicted in an idealized form of beauty and grace.  But not all felt this way, especially those who were inspired by the new spiritual movements of the Counter-Reformation.  To them, imbuing biblical stories with a palpable sense of reality brought greater spiritual rewards.  Right or wrong, Caravaggio’s work is an unflinching expression of this Counter-Reformation spirituality. 

Sources/Further Reading on The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio

  1. For more information on Caravaggio, see this post on the artist’s life and most famous paintings.
  2. For more on light and shadow in the art of Caravaggio, see this post on the artist’s David and Goliath.
  3. Read more about faith in the art of Caravaggio in this post on his nativity, Adoration of the Shepherds.
  4. See the Uffizi’s page on Caravaggio’s The Sacrifice of Isaac, here.
  5. Chorpenning, Joseph F. “Another Look at Caravaggio and Religion.” Artibus et Historiae, vol. 8, no. 16, IRSA s.c., 1987, pp. 149–58 
  6. Graham-Dixon, Andrew. “Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane.” Allen Lane and Penguin Books. London. 2010