(b. 1571, Caravaggio, d. 1610, Porto Ercole)

The Sacrifice of Isaac

Oil on canvas, 104 x 135 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

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.