Nov 262008
 

This painting (hanging in Uffizi Gallery, Florence; read the Wikipedia article of Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac) disturbs and stirs the viewer with the gestures of the actors — as if they themselves literally hold on to us, shaking us from apathy or calm. This psychological effect is not accidental: the depicted theme is one of the most intense, nerve wrecking scenes of the old testament; it was Abraham’s ultimate test of faith, when he almost sacrificed his only son. At the first glance it may be problematic to discern which hand is which, who holds who and what is going on. This is an inherently complex composition that makes no excuses for itself; it’s emotionally and visually demanding, as are most Caravaggio’s middle and late style pieces.

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The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1603
Caravaggio
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The knife and the ram’s horn contribute to the tense atmosphere as objects of war and offense. Together with the hands, they electrify the air, generating a broad sense of utmost intensity on the verge of implosion. These principally anonymous items support the composition’s harsh conception on an underlying level. The overt level is that of the human drama — Isaac’s terrified, paralyzed with fear face on one side, and Abraham’s visage, grim with determination, on the other. Gradually we begin to discern what is going on — and to get caught in the event.

The piece proceeds from left to right, starting with the angel and his pointing hand, and ending with the ram. These two also bring the much needed emotional relief. Caravaggio created a pleasing rhythm between the four heads in this painting: first he divided them, coupling Abraham’s head with the angel’s and Isaac’s with the ram’s, second, he countered the stress of the forefathers with the (Olympic) calm of the heavenly creatures (the ram, according to legend, waited for thousands of years near that place, having been put there by divine hand). By framing the composition with the serene angel and ram, the artist foreshadows the positive outcome (as well as intent) of the action.

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Bacchus
Caravaggio
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At this point of his career, Caravaggio already employed the powerful light effects (tenebrism, Britannica) for which he became so famous. Yet this piece is relatively tame when compared to his other work during that period, denoting a seeming regression in style. Perhaps the painter left out his most radical stylistic touches because the painting was a private commission. Sacrifice of Isaac also includes a rare landscape by the artist.

  One Response to “Caravaggio: Sacrifice of Isaac”

  1. Thank you for this. The greats were so wonderful (in provoking stong emotion) and on occasion I can still find an artist who takes my breath away.

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