The First Mourning

Once again this week we are dealing with mass murders in our country. It is heartbreaking. As the face of each victim is shown on the news, I can’t imagine what the families are going through. This painting aptly shows the grief of the most heart-wrenching loss—that of a child. This piece is titled, The First Mourning, because it shows the first time a human had to suffer the loss of a loved one. And I would think that the grief may be magnified by the fact that Adam and Eve’s son did not just die, but was murdered by Cain, their other son. It did not take long for jealousy, anger, murder, and sorrow to become part of the human vocabulary.

The dead body of Abel lies across Adam’s lap as Adam clutches his breast, trying to keep his heart from shattering. Eve kneels to bury her face into Adam’s chest, sobbing into her hands. The lifeless body of Abel is similar to how Christ is often depicted in classical art, lying across Mary’s lap after being lowered from the cross.

The artist, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, was a French painter who was no stranger to death. He lost his wife and four of his five sons. This painting was finished directly after the death of his second son. He knew grief well. How could he have survived such loss? We wonder if the title of this painting is a play on words, and that even in his mourning, Bouguereau was able to see the morning dawn approaching, as it does in the background of his work here, breaking through the dark clouds of night.

The story of Cain and Abel is often told as either a caution against violence or proof that it didn’t take humans long to decide to kill each other. But this painting reframes the incident, showing us two parents devastated by the death of their beloved. Art has the potential to give us a different perspective on human events. I’ve read the story of Cain and Abel many times, but I never gave mind to the grief this murder would have caused those who loved them both. Perhaps we’ve seen so much death in this world that we have become numb to the heart-wrenching grief that accompanies it. Everyone, even the family of the killer, is deeply and permanently scarred by such events.

Being Human connection: May we never stop seeing the humanity in every person affected by the tragedies that seem to surround us. Everyone is someone’s son or daughter or mother or father or friend. Every life taken leaves a hole in another human heart. Lord, help us. Lord, forgive us.

Featured art: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The First Mourning, 1888, © Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires