These impressive canvases, which depict two famous sacrificial episodes from the Old Testament, are excellent examples of Luca Giordano's dramatic style.
The sacrifices of Cain and Abel are described in Genesis and depicted in the first canvas. Cain, a farmer, brings an offering of fruit and grain as a sacrifice to the Lord. Abel, a shepherd, brings 'fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock' (Genesis 4:4). Displeased with Cain's offering, which Giordano has painted in the lower right corner, smoldering rather pathetically, God looks favorably only upon Abel's sacrifice, here engulfed in flames. The penitent Abel, bathed in light, kneels and prays, while Cain, depicted in the shadowy left of the composition, cowers from the blaze in fear and disappointment. God's rejection of Cain instills in him a burning jealously that eventually compels him to commit the first fratricide.
The Sacrifice of Isaac is related nearly twenty generations later in the book of Genesis. Instructed by God to kill his only son as a gesture of his faith, Abraham ascends Mount Moriah and prepares to execute his task. At the crucial moment, however, an angel -- sent by the God who looks over the scene from the upper left corner -- stays his hand, saying, 'Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither thou do any thing unto him; for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou has not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me' (Genesis 22:12). Giordano has captured the climactic event masterfully, evoking both the angel's gentleness and grace (he restrains Abraham with the slightest touch of his hand) and the red-faced fury of the prophet, who has fallen back in surprise at the angel's words but still grips the knife with the full physical force of his being. Isaac cowers in fear below his father and, in the lower right corner, Abraham's servants rest peacefully, unaware of the momentous event unfolding behind them.
Born in Naples in 1634, Giordano's first documented work dates to 1653. He is recorded as a member of the Neapolitan painters' confraternity in 1665 and worked extensively for patrons in Naples throughout his life. Giordano's art was also in demand in Venice, where he worked in Santa Maria della Salute, as well as in Florence, where he won the commission to decorate the library and gallery of the Palazzo Medici-Ricardi, completed in the mid-1680s. Eventually he was even summoned to Spain, where he was appointed court painter to Charles II in 1694. Giordano's ability to satisfy the overwhelming demand for his art can be accounted for, in part, by his legendary speed of execution. The rapid, fluid brushstrokes that are a hallmark of his style are evident in the present works. Due to his fame and popularity, Giordano's workshop grew to be very large, and he is thought to have had about thirty assistants working under his guidance. He was so successful, in fact, that when he died in 1705, his son inherited the enormous sum of 300,000 ducats.