(b. 1559, Villa Castelvecchio di Cigoli, d. 1613, Roma)

The Sacrifice of Isaac

c. 1607
Oil on canvas, 175,5 x 132,2 cm
Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence

Cigoli's picture depicts one of the most dramatic moments in the Old Testament (Genesis 22: 1-14), where the Lord tests Abraham's faith by asking him to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Just as Abraham is about to slit Isaac's throat an angel miraculously appears and points to a ram, tangled in a thicket, that can be sacrificed instead. Cigoli shows the moment at which the angel intervenes, pulling back Abraham's arm as he points to the ram. According to Cigoli's nephew, Giovanni Battista Cardi, the picture was painted while his uncle was working for Cardinal Pompeo Arrigoni in Frascati just outside Rome. Cigoli, a Florentine, is documented in Rome between 1606-07, a date which accords well with the style of The Sacrifice of Isaac. There are several preparatory studies for the painting, one of which is on the verso of a drawing for Massimo Massimi's Ecce Homo of 1607, making it safe to assume that Cigoli was working on both pictures at the same time.

Although The Sacrifice of Isaac was painted in Rome, the composition clearly recalls the Florentine tradition of Lorenzo Ghiberti and Andrea del Sarto. Isaac's sensuous nude body, however, reflects the artist's first-hand experience of classical sculpture. Despite the inherent suspense of the narrative, the picture itself lacks dramatic tension. Abraham's massive red tunic serves as a foil for Isaac's unblemished adolescent body, shifting the emphasis to the work's more lascivious characteristics. When the picture was criticised for its sexually evocative content by a visitor to Arrigoni's villa, the cardinal made an eloquent defence of the artist and the painting. The emotions evoked, he said, were the result of Cigoli's excellence as a painter; any stimulation was the fault of the viewer.

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