This relief recalls the story, as recounted in the Book of Genesis, of Cain and Abel. They were the first children of Adam and Eve after the latter's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Cain and Abel made offerings to the Lord and when Cain's offering was disregarded he lured his brother out into the fields and killed him. In the present relief Cain can be seen in the background, confronted by God who asks Cain where Abel is, and says 'Your brother's blood cries out to me from the soil'. The relief, however, does not focus on the brutality of the murder but on the pathos of the family group.
The composition of the present lot is derived from a painting by Frans Floris of circa 1561 (at least two versions were executed by Floris, one in the Staatliche Gemäldegalerie, Kassel, and the other in the Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, see fig. 1), although minor alterations have been made. Perhaps the most obvious of these is that the figure of Adam has been moved into the foreground, and his daughters have moved into the centre of the image, thereby emphasising the unity of the family. Cain is depicted in shallow relief in the background, foreshadowing his imminent banishment. To the right, a lion attacks a lamb, perhaps a symbol of the future murder of Christ, the Lamb of God.
The painting by Floris was also engraved in the early 1560s by Cornelis Cort (an example is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art , New York, see fig. 2) and this engraving seems to have had a wide influence. There is a wall tomb in the Church of Our Lady, Gdansk, dated 1594, which includes a painted panel of the scene as depicted in the engraving (see Deluga, op. cit., p. 105), and Heinrich Vernükken is known to have carved a stone version in the 1560s to be set into an elaborate chimneypiece in Schloss Horst in Germany which is also oriented in the same way as the engraving (see Klapheck, op. cit., p. 92, fig. 58).
It is significant that the author of the present relief appears to have been working directly from the painted source, and not from one of the widely diffused engravings. The brother of Frans Floris was the sculptor Cornelis Floris. They were from a family resident in Brussels with a long tradition of stone masonry and Cornelis likely trained in the workshop of his father. He travelled to Rome but returned to Antwerp when his father died in 1538, and he went on to have an important career as a sculptor, architect and engraver. Through the latter practice he was particularly influential and is said to have been crucial for the spread of Italian renaissance ideals in northern Europe.
Stylistically, the relief is closely comparable to documented works by Floris. Among these, perhaps the most compelling is the relief of the Ascension of Christ from the monument to Archbishop Adolf von Schauenburg in Cologne cathedral (for an illustration see Huysmans, op. cit., p. 190, fig 230). Numerous elements have parallels in the alabaster relief offered here including the modelling of the torso of the prostrate soldier in the foreground, which displays the same concave stomach with the two distinctive folds of skin above the navel as seen on the figure of Abel. The hunched figure to the right of the Ascension relief is facially also extremely close to Abel, and the female angels flanking the figure of Christ have the same delicate oval faces and thick locks of hair as can be seen on Eve and her daughters.
It seems likely, therefore, that the present relief was executed by Cornelis Floris around the time the paintings were created by his brother in the early 1560s. It may have been part of a larger ensemble that was later split up, or it may have formed the centrepiece of a private altar, commissioned by someone for whom the scene had a particular significance. Although its early history is not known, family tradition relates that it came from the collection of the great patron, Charles Alexander of Lorraine, who was governor of the Austrian Netherlands in the mid-18th century. If this history is correct, then it was almost certainly he who was responsible for the luxurious rococo frame that was created to enhance the relief.