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Lot was the son of Abraham’s brother. Lot accompanied Abraham on the latter’s voyage from Ur to the land of Canaan. He separated from Abraham when returning from Egypt, after a famine in Canaan, they decided that the land could not sustain them all. Lot preferred to go to the Jordan, to the region of the cities Sodom and Gomorrah. The Bible tells that when kings conquered Sodom, Abraham took three hundred of his men to defeat the army that had risen against Sodom to save Lot. Melchizedek, the leader of Sodom, thanked Abraham for defeating Sodom’s enemies. So the stories of Lot and of Abraham are interwoven in the Book of Genesis and Lot’s episode is written within Abraham’s life story.

The Bible talks of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It talks about three angels that visited Abraham in his tent, to announce him that the old Sarah would bear a son, Isaac, who would be heir to the covenant of Yahweh. These angels proceeded to Sodom and Gomorrah.

Landscape with the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah

Joachim Patinir (ca.1480-1535). Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen – Rotterdam.

Abraham accompanied the angels-men to speed them on their way. The men left near Sodom but Yahweh remained in Abraham’s presence. God did not want to hide from Abraham what he would be doing. God said that the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah was so great and their sin so grave that he needed to go down and see whether or not this was true. Abraham pleaded insistently not to destroy the upright with the guilty. Finally, Yahweh promised not to destroy the city even if there were only ten upright people left in Sodom and Gomorrah G38 .

Meanwhile, the two angels continued their way to Sodom. Lot invited them in. During the night, men calling out that they wanted to have intercourse with the arrived foreigners surrounded Lot’s house. Lot came out and proposed his virgin daughters to the mob, but the crowd wanted to force their way in. The angels pulled Lot back into the house with them and dazzled all those who stood at the door of the house with such a blinding light that they could not find the doorway.

The angels told Lot to take his men and relatives at dawn and to flee from the city. Lot’s future sons-in-law thought he was joking and refused to come with him. Lot however went with the angels. The angels said, “Flee for your life. Do not look behind you or stop anywhere on the plain.” The angels told Lot to flee to the mountains, but Lot pleaded to save a small town near that was since called Zoar. The angels granted. When the sun rose over the horizon, Lot entered Zoar.

Then Yahweh rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire of his own sending. God overthrew the cities, the people living in the cities and everything that grew in the whole plain.

Lot’s wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt.

The two great Walloon landscape painters of the early sixteenth century, Joachim Patinir and Henri Blès made paintings of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Henri Blès was inscribed in the book of the Guild of Painters of Antwerp as a Patinir also, so the two may have been related. G9. They came from near Dinant on the river Meuse in Wallony but they worked in Antwerp and spent most of their professional life there.

Patinir became a master in Antwerp in 1515 and he worked there a mere ten years, until his death in 1524. But his fame since then has been great as one of the first true masters of landscape painting. He was not the first artist to show nature in landscapes. But he was certainly the very first to make of landscapes the central theme of his life work. That made him stand out and be almost a curiosity among his contemporaries. Albrecht Dürer visited him on his trip to the Netherlands and made a portrait of Patinir in 1521. Karel Van Mander as well as Guicciardini mention him in their biographies of painters. Quinten Massys, Joos van Cleve and Adriaen Ysenbrant collaborated with him. Patinir painted background landscapes for these artists.

Patinir did not reproduce actual nature. He painted the landscapes he had in his mind and many of these images remind of the rocks, the high slopes and the narrow valleys of the Meuse valley he was born in. Patinir’s picture ‘Landscape with the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah’ in the Boymans - van Beuningen Museum of Rotterdam is a good example of his work.

The Bible and the Book of Genesis are composed of stories of people of towering characters. Most paintings on themes from the Old Testament centre on the lives of the patriarchs. Only two tales strike by the fact that they have landscapes or cities as their main actor. These are the narratives of the Tower of Babel and of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Pieter Bruegel, a generation younger than Joachim Patinir, painted on the theme of the Tower of Babel. He too loved landscapes although he used them more as main scenes in his drawings. Patinir and Blès preferred the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

In Patinir’s picture the towns are burning in the background. Brimstones fall from the sky and cause explosions that throw reddish light on the gruesome spectacle. The whole valley is fiery and smoking. Patinir recalled here the words of the Bible, given to the subsequent sight of Abraham. The incandescent brimstones lighten up eery rock formations of the mountains into which flee Lot and his family. Two angels in dazzling white – again, Patinir recalls the Bible – lead Lot and his daughters forward. Lot’s wife is already a pillar of salt.

The scene is truly frightening and that not just by the red destruction of a world, but also by the mountain rocks that look so alien and menacing. Patinir loved these rock formations that remind of legends of old and that have a strange romantic attraction. He also developed the imaginary vast panoramas we see in this picture; He knew well how to create vast and deep space and how to bring perspective in a landscape. Here the artist shows his art in bringing the viewer close to the rock formations, whereas one town also is closer and hence drawn larger than the other in the distance. The viewer is in a safe place, in the mountains, not amidst the destruction. We remain a spectator of the drama and do not participate in it.

The reddened sky in the upper part of the painting is hallucinatory. So are the small, very white angels in the right foreground. Men and angels are indeed tiny in these dangerous surroundings where all the frightful destructive elements of God and nature have come down. The viewer does not look from a viewpoint that lies in the valley. We stand on a hill that dominates the valley and that is at least as high as the rocks on the right. This high view was also not really a new invention of Patinir. Vast open panoramas and views from below were well known by the Flemish Gothic painters of the fifteenth century. But this kind of incandescent furnace of a landscape as the main theme of a painting and in which the main figures of the narrative were so small, was without doubt a new vision. Patinir made pictures that brought to the mind of his contemporaries images of the Apocalypse, the so much feared and seemingly so close ending of the world predicted in Saint John’s visions.

The next morning Abraham saw the place where had stood Sodom and Gomorrah. He saw the smoke rising from the ground like smoke from a furnace. But God had not forgotten Abraham for Lot had been saved.

Lot and his Daughters

Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617). Rijksmuseum – Amsterdam. 1618.

During the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah Lot had arrived in the town of Zoar. Lot dared not to stay in Zoar so he settled in the hill country with his two daughters. He lived in a cave. There were no men around to marry Lot’s daughters.

The elder daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old and there are no men to marry here. So let us ply our father with wine and sleep with him. In this way the race will be preserved.” The next night they made their father drunk and the younger sister slept with him. Lot was unaware of his daughter coming to bed and leaving it. The following night again the sisters made their father drunk and the elder now slept with him.

Hendrik Goltzius (1558-1617) was a Dutch painter of the town of Haarlem. He made a voyage to Italy in 1590 and he travelled to Bologna, Venice and Florence. He was a Mannerist painter but he did not have this style from the pictures he saw on his voyage. Already in Haarlem he had seen works of Frans Floris and of Maarten van Heemskerck. These artists painted mythological and allegorical, Italianate scenes in this style. Goltzius’ paintings are close to Baroque. Contrary to Patinir, Goltzius was a great portrait painter and some of these skills can also be seen in his picture of ‘Lot and his Daughters’. Goltzius again brought his figures in the foreground and in the centre of attention.

The old, bearded Lot and his two daughters are in a cave. The plain of Sodom and Gomorrah is still burning. Red smoke rises to the skies. The world is destroyed but Lot and the two women are safe and oblivious of what happens outside. They are in a separate world. This scene is extraordinary. It stresses the difference between the chosen of Yahweh and the rest of the mortals.

Lot’s daughters are making their father drink. The daughter on the left pours his wine and the picture shows bread and a typical half round Dutch cheese. Close down is a dog, symbol of loyalty and of faith, while in the far a fox peers in, the symbol of cunning.

Lot and his daughters are naked. This is not a scene as one could expect of Italian artists. Goltzius painted the bodies very realistically and sensuously. Italian painters would have drawn stylised nudes of perfect ethereal beauty, bodies that can be admired platonically as the ancient Greek statues, without all the earthy hollows and movements of bones and flesh that indicate imperfection. The Italian artists of the Renaissance believed in the Platonic ideal of beauty and elegance in man. Hendrick Goltzius however painted the women with all the realism of human direct nudity. He thus created an immediacy of sensuality that is enticing. This was how the Baroque painters of the Netherlands and of Flanders and Brabant saw nudity. Pieter Paul Rubens of Antwerp preferred this plump realism and saw another kind of palpitating beauty in the voluptuous full forms. So did the painters of Haarlem, like Hendrick Goltzius and Cornelis Cornelisz. Van Haarlem. The flesh they painted had the colours of the bed, not of antique marble but of sex.

Goltzius brought a moral message in his picture, a message that we can find in so many Dutch paintings of the late sixteenth and of the seventeenth century. The Netherlands was mostly Calvinist then, but for large communities in certain cities. Goltzius could paint lush nudes but unlike Rubens, who wallowed in a natural way and without shame in luxurious flesh, some of the suspicion of sin of the Protestant preachings remained in Goltzius’ mind. Hence the dog and the fox. Still, the sensuality of the scene is obvious.

The Bible story says that Lot’s daughters made their father drunk and only then one slept with him. In Goltzius’ picture all three are nude and Lot has not yet fallen asleep. He is very much aware of what the girls are up to and he has already one arm and hand in an act of possession around a girl’s shoulder. The lascivious tension of the scene is shown also by the silken, coloured cloth on which the three are seated.

Goltzius’ picture is typical of Dutch Haarlem Baroque but not of the Dutch styles that would prevail: the genre scenes, the church interiors, the marine paintings and the flat landscapes of the country. Examples of the art of Goltzius came however not only from the Baroque masters of Brabant but also from other Dutch painters that worked at the Bohemian and German imperial court of Prague like Bartholomeus Spranger. Goltzius knew this artist. Dutch art of nude painting was always very explicit and thus was in conflict with its Calvinist structure of society. The pictures were often realistic, explicit so as to be almost pornographic. Yet these pictures were made for the courts of the noble and for some of the rich burghers. The pictures were just tolerated but eagerly bought, as a secret relish and maybe also as a defiance to a too strict puritanism. Excuses could always be found for these subjects since these were images of Biblical or of mythological scenes. The Old Testament is full of stories of patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac or David and these men had wives and concubines. Sexuality was naturally needed for mankind and forgiven in the Bible, forgiven by Yahweh too. What did the Dutch artist do more than reminding society of these undercurrents in the Bible? The excuse had a solid base, but the basis was a thin one. In later sixteenth century the excuse was not valid anymore and nudity was completely banned. But there remained a streak in Dutch painting to show a brink of vulgarity, a hang for a scene that was only just allowed and just not too explicit. Sensuality again had to be shown through symbols and double meanings.

Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father. The elder gave birth to a son she called Moab. He became the ancestor of the Moabites. The younger daughter gave birth likewise to as on and she called him Ben-Ammi. He became the ancestor of the Bene-Ammon.

Other paintings:

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