Lamech and Cain – Amuse-bouche #2 (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I have decided to do a series of posts, perhaps once a week, featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture.

Today’s amuse-bouche is another capital from the basilica of Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay. This nave capital represents the slaying of Cain by Lamech, one of the most obscure stories I have ever found illustrated in medieval sculpture. What interested me in this photo was the figure immediately next to the bowman, so I did some research.

Capital - Lamech and Cain, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – Lamech and Cain, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The entirety of the story of Lamech is found in one passage of Genesis 4:19-24.

And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah.
And Adah bare Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle.
And his brother’s name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ.
And Zillah, she also bare Tubalcain, an instructer of every artificer in brass and iron: and the sister of Tubalcain was Naamah.
And Lamech said unto his wives, Adah and Zillah, Hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech: for I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt.
If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.

Early exegetes in Armenia wrote the following passage:

And Lamech, having mounted a horse and gone Cain came
in sight from afar with his horns and skin; Lamech, on seeing him
thought it was a stag, and letting an arrow fly from his bow, he killed
Cain.

Apparently the Armenian story was the basis for the medieval parable of Lamech, Cain’s progeny to the seventh generation, who was elderly and blind. In order to impress his son with his hunting skills, he went into the woods with Tubalcain. Tubalcain pointed out what he thought was an animal and Lamech shot and killed Cain, who was wearing his horns and skin as the “mark of Cain” of his own murder of Abel.

Lamech and Cain detail, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Lamech and Cain detail, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

When Lamech found that he had killed Cain, he slew his son in anger. Thus the verse in Genesis, “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.” Some interpret the “seventy and sevenfold” as a boast, but since the killing of Cain was forbidden by God, I think that it is a lament. The tale of Lamach and Cain illustrated by this capital in Vézelay, though almost unknown today, was known widely and in many variations throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. What lesson we were to glean from the story of this bigamist, murderer and filicide, however, is completely beyond my understanding.

To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

9 responses to “Lamech and Cain – Amuse-bouche #2 (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Great post; both your spotting the image and making capital out of it in the wondrous tales…
    But I’m a wee bit confused about relatiopnships. Are you saying that Lamech (who borrows his son Jubal’s harp to make bow for his arrow?) is the great-x-5-grandson of Cain

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