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The Book of Ruth

Boaz, Ruth and Naomi

Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678). The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art – Sarasota. Ca.1641/1642.

A man from Betlehem called Elimelech took his wife Naomi and his two sons to live in the plains of Moab because there was a famine in the country of Israel. The family lived there for ten years and Elimelech’s sons married to Moabite women, one of whom was called Ruth. Elimelech and his sons died but Naomi decided to return when the famine was over. Ruth though a Moabitess did not want to leave Naomi so the two women arrived in Betlehem.

Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side that was very well off. His name was Boaz. Ruth asked to Naomi to be allowed to glean in the fields of Boaz. Boaz saw her in the field but he was nice to her. He ordered his workmen to leave her alone. He gave her bread and told his men even to pull a few ears corn and to drop them for Ruth to glean. So Ruth could stay among Boaz’ working women and she gleaned for Naomi and herself.

Naomi remarked Boaz’ kindness. She told Ruth to wash and to perfume herself, to put on her cloak and to go to the threshing floor. She told Ruth not to let Boaz recognise her but to find out where he laid himself to sleep, then to go and turn back. Naomi told Ruth to take the covering away from Boaz’ feet and to lie down there herself too. Ruth did that. Boaz woke up in the middle of the night and he remarked Ruth at his feet. She told Boaz he had a right of redemption over her and could spread the skirt of his cloak over her. But Boaz let her sleep then and in the morning gave her six measures of barley. With these Ruth returned to Naomi and waited to see what Boaz would do next.

Boaz had not really a right of redemption over Ruth. Naomi had a closer kinsman than Boaz. Boaz went to speak to this man and told him of his right of redemption since Naomi wanted to sell Elimelech’s land. If the man redeemed his right, the man would be able to acquire the field from Naomi but then he also had to acquire Ruth. On that the man answered he did not want Ruth because he did not want to jeopardise his own inheritance. Therefore the man gave the right of redemption to Boaz. As a sign the man took off his sandal and gave that to Boaz, as was the custom on such transactions.

In that way Boaz inherited everything that used to belong to Elimelech. So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. They came together and thus Ruth conceived of a son. That son was called Obed and he was the father of Jesse, the father of David who would be the greatest king of Israel.

Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678) was a contemporary painter to Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). Rubens and van Dyck died shortly the one after the other so that Antwerp came to Jordaens only. Of course, van Dyck had been in England, away from Antwerp since 1632and had worked in London. Jordaens was quite the equal artist to Rubens and van Dyck, but he did not paint to the refinement in content and in representation that characterised Rubens and even more so van Dyck. If Rubens and van Dyck were princes, Jordaens was the jester. That does not mean that he was less intelligent however, and certainly also not that he lacked the professional skills of the two former great masters.

Jordaens’ pictures were coarser. They depicted scenes of a wilder, uninhibited, unruly imagination. Jordaens’ scenes are sometimes vulgar and they were often genre scenes like his colleagues of the Northern Netherlands preferred, but presented in all the boisterous show of Brabant love for life as it is. Dutch painters might have sophisticated a pub scene so that the message was barely perceivable; with Jordaens it was all too apparent what happened in the painting. Thus, Jordaens blended the impetuous Baroque representation of Rubens with the realistic, genre spirit of Holland; he showed Dutch scenes in the style of Antwerp. Jordaens was not as refined as Rubens or van Dyck, but he was a formidable painter and if he wanted he could be as sophisticated as these two. His scope of subjects and of representation was wider and his skill not less. He was a very professional artist who delivered pictures that were to the tastes of the Antwerp richer merchants.

Antwerp was then still one of the major ports of Western Europe, even if the Dutch had closed the River Schelde and levied taxes on all ships that came over the river from the sea to the port. Amsterdam was newly flourishing, but Antwerp still possessed the combination of merchant skill, of knowledge, and old money that was needed to make trade a success. The port lay more south than Amsterdam and somewhat closer to France and Germany. Jacob Jordaens painted for Antwerp’s merchants and for the country nobles of the Brabant hinterland, as well as for the other Brabant cities, among them Brussels.

The two pictures ‘Boaz’ and ‘Ruth and Naomi’ were probably designed to decorate Jordaens’ house in Antwerp S1 . The two paintings are short in horizontal dimension but long vertically so that they could have been designed to be hung between two high windows. Jordaens made them when he was about fifty years old, when he was at the height of his art and when he might have felt old age encroaching upon him. Some identification with the older Boaz, or a kind of curiosity for old age, and a desire to believe that old men could still charm young women might have made the subject quite agreeable to Jordaens. We sense admiration in Jordaens for Boaz, curiosity for a man that attracted the young Ruth and a touch of admiration and of longing for the example of Boaz.

The figure of Boaz is magnificent. We see an old man, still powerful. The viewer’s attention is drawn to the face of Boaz, to the piercing and vivid eyes that scrutinise and command, set in an otherwise impassive and cool face. The folds of old age surround the eyes and the brows are held in concern, work and reflection of years. This man is a thinker. The face shows no feelings. Boaz has stayed up late for many years to think of all things that had to be done and that were needed to make a household not only survive but also thrive. But he confided in nobody. This is a man that has grown his house to become an estate. That man commands many servants but his people are taken care of. Therefore the face of Boaz contains the folds of worries, of years of fighting against fate. The face does not show the victories or the defeats. Boaz‘ beard is long; his lips are sunk beneath his hair face and hides his sensuality. Boaz has a face of dignity and of robustness. His long beard is the sign of respect for Yahweh, as the zealous of Israel did not shave. Moreover, the man stands like a rock. He is tall and straight. He wears a gown of an undistinguishable reddish colour that blends well with his environment in the sun of Betlehem. But Boaz also wears a golden brocaded cloak over his robe, long brown trousers and a yellow-golden turban crowns his head so that he seems even more imposing. The golden cloak marks his wealth and force. It hangs nonchalantly but in such a way that no one can make a mistake: Boaz is a man of substance. Th golden cloak also says that though a man that looks closely at his money, he may be a sensual man who likes beauty.

Boaz shows a shoe and holds that high. This is a sign of his property. Boaz bought the land of Naomi’s husband from her next-of-kin. With the land came Naomi and of course Ruth. The sandal is the sign of Boaz’s right of redemption over Ruth. The old Boaz has just acquired more than property. Boaz is a hard man but also not an unkind man. He has bought Ruth because he desires her, but she offered herself to him first. Boaz’ portrait is a full scene, static and strict. But Boaz shows the sandal and by that element the portrait becomes a story that opens the imagination of the viewer to the whole scene. Here is action. Jordaens could not refrain from telling a story. He liked that. Ruth also shows to Naomi the barley that Boaz has given her after she had slept at his feet. So both portraits are also small, delicately told stories.

Besides Boaz we see his real weakness, Ruth. Ruth is the voluptuous but virtuous Moabitess, a girl more desirable than beautiful, a virtuous girl but one who will not refuse desire and sex. She wears a thick robe of a silvery white and a blue cloak. The silver is the colour of inconstancy, and Ruth is till young enough and feminine enough to be as inconstant as the moon. Anthony van Dyck used such a colour on his ‘Delilah’. The blue is the colour of innocence and virtue, usually the colour of the Virgin Mary. There is some link to the story of Joseph and Mary, as Mary also married a man much older than she. Ruth shows most of her bare breasts, but just prudently enough so that her nipples do not show. She is full-formed, hospitable, open-breasted, but her eyes and face are not alluring and she looks downwards in shyness and humility.

However hard and law-abiding Boaz might be, however old, however a provider of protection for his household, however responsible, he will desire Ruth and that will be allowed. Boaz needed urging to bring him to Ruth, and the right circumstances for him to believe in it being still appropriate for him to take a beautiful, young bride.

Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, provided the appropriateness. Naomi will drive Ruth to Boaz. Her face is as hard, old, wrinkled, showing the results of days of despair and deprivation. Naomi’s face is also the face of someone who provides for her kin, but she might use any ruse and means of an old schemer. She is poor, so she has it harder than Boaz to reach her aims and so she will have les scruples and no law will stop her ambition, which here was a matter of life or death.

The two paintings of Jacob Jordaens are marvels of observation, though the artist created figures from memory. The faces of Boaz, Ruth and Naomi express exactly what the Bible personages were. They are marvellous in depiction and in understanding if the characters of the Bible. This was one of Jacob Jordaens’ great strengths in painting. Contrary to many of his other pictures, Jordaens showed very little decoration behind his figures. The representation of the figures is simple and direct but therefore monumental and gripping, masterpieces of efficiency with frugal means. These portraits are wonders of communication and painterly expression. But remark the fine chiaroscuro in Boaz’ golden cloak: Jordaens could do much more besides his skills as a portrait painter.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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