Piero di Cosimo’s masterful rendering of the frightened, charging animals attempting to escape a forest fire, the intense sparking blaze visible in the middle distance of this landscape, recall Joel’s description of the fire that devoured the wilderness and deprived the beasts of home and sustenance.
Piero probably painted this panel, however, as part of a series inspired by passages from Book 5 of De Rerum Natura (‘On the Nature of Things’) by Lucretius (98–c.55 BCE), who traces the origins of life on earth and the birth of community life, emphasising the role of fire as a catalyst for change. Although the artist was interpreting a classical source, when considered in light of Joel 1:18–20, the painting may also be read as an example of the devastation that precedes the deliverance of Israel as described in Joel 3:16–21. The open, gasping mouths of the animals in the foreground of Piero’s panel, especially the bull who extends his long pink tongue, suggests their panting and thirst after fleeing the fire, but also calls to mind Psalm 42:1: ‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God’. Read in this light, the flames and the thirst of the beasts so vividly rendered by Piero might also stand for the ardent desire to know or be close to God.
Piero’s painting also suggests a particular affinity between animals and humans, as some of his beasts possess human faces. This extraordinary depiction suggests a world in which the divisions between animals and humans are not distinct and which speaks to both the shared desires and sufferings of all living beings as described in Joel.
Geronimus, Dennis. 2006. Piero Di Cosimo: Visions Beautiful and Strange (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 134–36
1 The word of the Lord that came to Joel, the son of Pethuʹel:
2Hear this, you aged men,
give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
or in the days of your fathers?
3Tell your children of it,
and let your children tell their children,
and their children another generation.
4What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.
5Awake, you drunkards, and weep;
and wail, all you drinkers of wine,
because of the sweet wine,
for it is cut off from your mouth.
6For a nation has come up against my land,
powerful and without number;
its teeth are lions’ teeth,
and it has the fangs of a lioness.
7It has laid waste my vines,
and splintered my fig trees;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;
their branches are made white.
8Lament like a virgin girded with sackcloth
for the bridegroom of her youth.
9The cereal offering and the drink offering are cut off
from the house of the Lord.
The priests mourn,
the ministers of the Lord.
10The fields are laid waste,
the ground mourns;
because the grain is destroyed,
the wine fails,
the oil languishes.
11Be confounded, O tillers of the soil,
wail, O vinedressers,
for the wheat and the barley;
because the harvest of the field has perished.
12The vine withers,
the fig tree languishes.
Pomegranate, palm, and apple,
all the trees of the field are withered;
and gladness fails
from the sons of men.
13Gird on sackcloth and lament, O priests,
wail, O ministers of the altar.
Go in, pass the night in sackcloth,
O ministers of my God!
Because cereal offering and drink offering
are withheld from the house of your God.
14Sanctify a fast,
call a solemn assembly.
Gather the elders
and all the inhabitants of the land
to the house of the Lord your God;
and cry to the Lord.
15Alas for the day!
For the day of the Lord is near,
and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.
16Is not the food cut off
before our eyes,
joy and gladness
from the house of our God?
17The seed shrivels under the clods,
the storehouses are desolate;
the granaries are ruined
because the grain has failed.
18How the beasts groan!
The herds of cattle are perplexed
because there is no pasture for them;
even the flocks of sheep are dismayed.
19Unto thee, O Lord, I cry.
For fire has devoured
the pastures of the wilderness,
and flame has burned
all the trees of the field.
20Even the wild beasts cry to thee
because the water brooks are dried up,
and fire has devoured
the pastures of the wilderness.