Illustration from Moralia in Iob (Job) by Saint Gregory the Great by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Illustration from Moralia in Iob (Job) by Saint Gregory the Great, 1061, Illumination on parchment, 51 x 34 cm, Bamberg Staatsbibliothek, MS Bibl. 41, fol. 29r, Staatsbibliothek Bamberg, Photo: Gerald Raab

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Job and his Wife

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In Job 2:9, Job’s wife makes a cameo appearance and asks her husband, ‘Are you still holding fast to your integrity? Curse God and die’. The Hebrew word she uses (barak) typically means ‘bless,’ but there is little sign of blessing here, and either way Job is being asked to die.

His wife has given up hope because she has lost everything too. The only thing remaining is the ignominy of her husband’s putrid suffering and therefore she is bitter of soul.

Job’s wife feels real. She doesn’t say the ‘right things’. She’s just honest about losing her faith. God has apparently confounded the terms of his covenant to bless the upright, and therefore he appears arbitrary. Job, meanwhile, is resolute in the face of his wife’s words, but is he also more tender than we might think? In 2:10 he does not say she is foolish, just that she speaks like a foolish woman. From then on, Job’s wife will be silent during her husband’s long quest to understand God’s justice, but they are blessed together in the restoration of Job 42.

Gregory the Great, who became Pope in 590 CE, had a less favourable view of Job’s wife, considering her Satan’s ladder to her husband’s mind. His colossal and highly-influential work, Moralia in Job, written in the years c.578–91 CE, became a quasi-Bible in itself during the Middle Ages. A depiction of Job and his wife in this eleventh-century Italian manuscript of the Moralia—made for Bishop Gunther of Bamberg—portrays him covered in sores, his torso bare and grey with ash (2:8, 12). A yellow linen cloth is draped around his legs and there are bandages on his ankles. The artist does not pursue a psychological portrayal of his suffering but presents Job in a hieratic frontal pose that likens him to Christ, and by extension to the priestly role of the Church, which was Gregory’s typological emphasis. It is thus a visual statement of his significance in the history of salvation.

Job’s wife is dressed like an eleventh-century nun of the period when this manuscript was produced. She points with a didactic gesture that seems to encourage the reader to pay attention to Job, whose own upraised hand physically touches the chapter titles of Gregory’s text on the page, reinforcing this message. The artist does not demonize Job’s wife as Gregory does. Indeed, her appearance seems to commend the religious life in medieval society as a path to female wisdom.


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