A Matriarch Worth Remembering
Commentary by Heather Macumber
The statues of Leah and Rachel flank the celebrated sculpture of Moses on Michelangelo’s Tomb of Julius II commissioned in 1505 and only finally completed on a reduced scale in 1545. Originally, this monument was designed to incorporate over forty statues. To the disappointment of Michelangelo, its impressive scope was diminished through a series of revisions by the Pope.
The inclusion of Leah and Rachel was a later development replacing an earlier set of sculptures known as the Slaves. Leah is portrayed as a Roman matron dressed elaborately with an intricately braided hairstyle. Her gaze is cast downward in contrast to Rachel whose clasped hands and face are turned towards the heavens in prayer. The contrast between the sisters is further amplified by Rachel’s stark dress and lack of ornamentation.
Allegorical readings of Leah and Rachel are found in many writers—including Augustine and Dante—and probably served as inspirations for the artist. In particular, Dante describes a more reflective Rachel versus a Leah who proclaims that ‘action is my delight, reflection hers’ (Purgatory 27.108). Although Dante’s Rachel gazes contemplatively at her reflection in a mirror, one finds the opposite in Michelangelo’s sculpture. In her right hand, it is now Leah who holds what seems to be a mirror, interpreted by older biographers of Michelangelo as a symbol of prudence or wisdom (Frommel 2016: 66). The heavenward orientation in Rachel’s stance is a more straightforward adaptation of personifications of Faith. Thus, both sisters stand equally as symbols for the active and contemplative life, one focused on the heavenly and the other on the earthly world.
Leah and Rachel’s significance for Michelangelo is not clear, especially their inclusion in a monument designed to commemorate an ambitious pope like Julius II. Ironically, the statue of the pope on the upper tier is much smaller and less impressive than the central massive statue of Moses. Though Rachel and Leah are quite diminished in stature compared to Moses, Leah’s presence as an equal mother of Israel seems to be assumed by Michelangelo.
Alighieri, Dante. 1955. The Divine Comedy II: Purgatory trans. by Dorothy Sayers (New York: Penguin Classics)
Frommel, Christoph Luitpold. 2016. Michelangelo’s Tomb for Julius II: Genesis and Genius (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum)
Caught in the Middle
Commentary by Heather Macumber
Dutch artist Hendrick ter Brugghen captures a tense moment between two arguing men who ignore the woman caught between them. In the background, the forgotten remains of a meal lie scattered and abandoned on the table. The painting was originally unnamed, but it probably portrays Jacob’s confrontation with his father-in-law Laban, who has substituted his daughter Leah as a wife for Jacob, in place of his other daughter Rachel (Genesis 29:21–26) whom Jacob loves and prefers.
Jacob’s marriage to Leah will not deter him from also—shortly afterwards—marrying her sister Rachel too (Genesis 29:30).
Jacob wearing red, occupies the left foreground. His face is shadowed but his pointing gesture toward the seated elderly figure seems unmistakably aggressive. The diagonal positioning of his shepherd’s crook neatly divides the painting, separating the two sisters who are visible to either side of him. Jacob and the woman peeking around the corner—presumably Rachel—are connected, while Laban and Leah are aligned on the other side. Conversely, the brighter colours of Jacob and Leah’s clothing , while the subdued tones of Rachel and Laban’s clothing cause them to recede.
The highlighting of Leah is unexpected given that Rachel, as the object of Jacob’s love, is conventionally treated by interpreters and artists as the favoured sister. The stillness of Leah’s figure is particularly arresting as she gazes past the drama unfolding beside her. With her right arm curled against her body—perhaps protectively—her despondency is palpable as Jacob accuses Laban of duplicity, thereby effectively rejecting his elder daughter.
Traditionally, readers of this text are drawn to the supposed love story between Jacob and Rachel, dismissing Leah’s contribution to the immediate narrative and the larger history of Israel. However, Brugghen’s deliberate emphasis on the figure of Leah complicates this interpretation. By drawing our attention to her, he simultaneously recognizes her as a passive participant in a negotiation between two men while signalling that there is more to her story. Conversely, although she is positioned between Jacob and Laban on a left–right axis, she is also apart from them, detached from their confrontation. As the future matriarch of six of the tribes of Israel, she is a figure worth contemplating further.
Commentary by Heather Macumber
Pregnant Self Portrait (1984) by Ghislaine Howard foregrounds the physical and emotional experience of the expectant mother. The woman’s figure dominates the frame and one’s gaze follows that of the subject whose head is bowed toward her rounded stomach. The features of the woman’s face are obscured but her posture implies a sense of sadness or melancholy that pervades the painting. In fact, the artist herself has noted similarities to Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I (1514) in which a female subject sits deep in thought (Howard 1986).
While the slouched position speaks of the woman’s physical exhaustion, there is also a sense of emotional introversion. The isolation of the figure is further intensified by the simplified and pared down background that untethers this image from any particular context.
Howard’s self-portrait has a timeless character rendering it a fitting subject for discussions of Leah and her role as a mother. The muted details of the subject’s clothing and background allows opportunities for new associations outside the original setting.
In Genesis, Leah receives a surprising amount of focus particularly in the naming of her children. This takes the form of an extended dialogue with God, reminiscent of the laments found in the psalms (Ross-Burstall 1994: 164–65). The reader is given momentary access to Leah’s inner condition as she discloses her sense of alienation and rejection from Jacob (Genesis 29:32–33). Her complaint centres on her status as hated and her prayers are acts of trust that God will intervene in her situation. Leah’s laments reveal the complicated reality of her unfulfilled desire for Jacob’s companionship together with her anticipation for children.
Like Howard’s Pregnant Self Portrait in its shedding of light on women’s underrepresented experiences, Leah’s prayers give further insight into a character who is too often overlooked.
Howard, Ghislaine. 1986. ‘Self portraiture’, The Artist Magazine, available at https://ghislainehoward.com/art-paintings-drawings/the-human-condition/self-portraiture/ [accessed 1 May 2021]
Ross-Burstall, Joan. 1994. ‘Leah and Rachel: A Tale of Two Sisters’, Word & World, 14.2: 162–70
Michelangelo Buonarroti :
Leah, c.1542 , Marble
Hendrick ter Brugghen :
Jacob Reproaching Laban for Giving him Leah in Place of Rachel, 1627 , Oil on canvas
Ghislaine Howard :
Pregnant Self Portrait, 1984 , Oil on board
A Complicated Legacy
Commentary by Heather Macumber
Leah is doubly marginalized first within her own family but also by later interpreters who favour Rachel. The reader is perhaps predisposed to dismiss Leah’s importance due to the problematic translation of ‘her soft eyes’ versus Rachel’s more obvious beauty (Genesis 29:17). Ancient and modern translators have varied between understanding Leah’s ‘soft eyes’ as weak—implying a defect—or as lovely (Kugel 1997: 220; Gafney 2017: 62). However, even when the descriptor ‘lovely’ was employed, ancient interpreters qualified this compliment by speculating that it was Leah’s only redeeming feature (Kugel 1997: 221).
Telling the stories of biblical women is frequently a process of excavation, of unravelling long trajectories of interpretative choices that devalue and isolate their narratives. The three chosen art works in this exhibition, each in its own way, do the opposite by capturing moments too easily forgotten, providing another opportunity to reassess Leah and her story.
Hendrik ter Brugghen’s painting is noteworthy as it intentionally highlights Leah while partially obscuring both Jacob and Rachel. The facial features of the patriarch are shadowed and indecipherable while Rachel is hidden in the background. Leah stands out in this scene as the light falls directly on her face, capturing her expression. The stillness of her posture further isolates her from the rest of the characters in the tableaux who are all caught in some form of movement. Jacob and Laban are depicted leaning towards one another arguing while Rachel actively eavesdrops in the background. In contrast, Leah’s motionlessness disengages her from the immediate unfolding drama inviting the viewer to consider her reaction and thoughts. In visual terms, Brugghen effectively ‘silences’ both Jacob and Laban in favour of Leah and her distress as the rejected wife.
Portraits of pregnancy in recent decades have celebrated the beauty of the female body (in photographs of Demi Moore and Beyoncé, for example). In contrast, Ghislaine Howard in Pregnant Self Portrait features a pregnant woman both physically and emotionally exhausted. Whereas Brugghen used light to expose Leah, Howard does the opposite by shrouding the features of the woman. This is an ordinary moment often not captured in works of art as it honestly reveals the toll that pregnancy takes on women.
In Genesis, Leah’s particular emotional hardships are recorded in the prayers that she offers upon the birth of her children. Acknowledging Leah’s laments as active forms of resistance to her situation helps correct tendencies that view her as a flat and uninteresting character. It is not difficult to imagine Leah similarly adopting Howard’s posture of exhaustion with her gaze directed inward as one birth follows another. Howard’s Self Portrait is a reminder of the everyday invisible lives of women whose interior struggles and physical hardships of childrearing are not often acknowledged or preserved.
The inclusion of Leah and Rachel alongside Moses on the Tomb of Julius II is testament to the legacy of the matriarchs as builders of the nation of Israel. Although Michelangelo’s monument gives prominence to women like Leah and Rachel, it also omits other important mothers in the biblical narrative. Leah’s suffering elicits sympathy as she must continually share her husband and the spotlight with her sister, but she is also complicit in perpetuating trauma towards her slave Bilhah by using her as a surrogate (Claassens 2020: 22). Though Leah and Rachel may stand as founders of Israel alongside Moses on the Tomb of Julius II, the visual omission of the slave women Bilhah and Zilpah, who also gave birth to the nation of Israel, is a striking example of the sisters’ privilege compared to other disregarded characters.
Leah’s story remains entangled with that of her sister Rachel both in textual and visual form, continually serving as a source of comparison and contrast. Brugghen’s deliberate focus on Leah rather than Rachel gives momentary prominence to a woman often neglected by later readers and interpreters. Similarly, Howard’s emphasis not only on the pregnant body but one caught in such a commonplace pose draws attention to the inner world of the mother. It acts as a window to appreciate the physical and emotional burden carried by women like Leah in struggles that often occur in the background. Finally, Michelangelo’s choice to include both Rachel and Leah alongside the lauded figure of Moses highlights their ongoing legacy as founders of Israel.
Leah emerges as a complicated character remembered for her struggles within her own family but also as a model and blessing for future women (Ruth 4:11).
Claassens, L. Juliana. 2020. ‘Reading Trauma Narratives: Insidious Trauma in the Story of Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah (Genesis 29–30) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale’, Old Testament Essays, 33.1: 10–31
Gafney, Wilda C. 2017. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)
Kugel, James L. 1997. The Bible As It Was (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)