The Morning After
Commentary by Jennifer Moldenhauer
Compared with the other two objects in this exhibition, the painting by the Italian artist Orazio Gentileschi (1562–1640) is characterized by clear restraint. There is no trace of lasciviousness. Dawn is breaking over the hill. Lot is still lying on the lap of one of his daughters. His furrowed brow suggests that he is no longer asleep but feeling uneasy. Perhaps he realizes what happened last night and why his robe is pushed up, as is that of his other daughter. Or is he still feeling the effects of the wine, which (as the overturned vessel at lower left declares) has been completely drunk?
What the daughter in the foreground is pointing to eludes the viewer. Perhaps she is indicating the cities destroyed by burning sulphur in the Jordan plain (Genesis 19:24). The Bible is silent about what exactly happens to Lot and his daughters after those two nights, except that both daughters get pregnant and each one gives birth to a son. The eldest daughter names her son Moab, which means ‘from my father’, explicitly denoting the union as an incestuous one. The younger names her son Ben-Ammi, which means ‘son of my clan’.
The fact that the daughters are the ones who give the children their names (as opposed to their shared father) fits their development within the narrative into the story’s active protagonists. Their sons become the progenitors of two great peoples, the Moabites and the Ammonites. In the Old Testament, there are predominantly anti-Moabite tendencies (e.g. Deuteronomy 23:3–6), which probably have their roots in the wars between Judah / Israel and Moab over territorial claims. On the other hand, in the book of Ruth, the narrative makes a Moabite woman the ancestral mother of the Judaean royal house (Ruth 4:13–17). Thus, an ancestral mother of Jesus Christ can also be recognized in the elder daughter of Lot. Perhaps the daughter’s gesture points to this very significant future of her people. For there is no fear or despair on her face, but rather her concentrated gaze and forward-looking posture indicate a departure towards new horizons.
Sin after Salvation
Commentary by Jennifer Moldenhauer
Where artistic treatment of the story of Lot is concerned, the focus until the sixteenth century was almost always on the destruction of the city of Sodom, Lot’s wife’s petrification as a pillar of salt, and the escape and salvation of Lot himself (Genesis 19:1–29).
By contrast, the unknown artist of this relief has chosen to focus on the episode that comes next. This is the moment shortly before the drunken Lot copulates with his virgin daughters and impregnates them; a theme that was depicted only occasionally before 1500. The composition is based on an engraving by Lucas van Leyden from 1530 who, for the first time, added a blatantly erotic dimension and relegated Sodom bursting into flames and Lot’s frozen wife to the background.
By focussing on this point in the narrative, the artist plays with the ambivalence of the sinfulness of the story. Did Lot really not know what he was doing that night, and were the daughters really not driven by their lust, but only by the desire for motherhood and the perpetuation of the family line? Those to whom they were betrothed had died in Sodom, and since Lot also fled with them from the nearby small town of Zoar, they are now isolated from the outside world in the mountain cave. By a nuanced moving between the depicted events of the biblical story and the profane, typically Northern, topos of the ‘Power of Women’ (heroic or wise men dominated by women and their erotic power) and the ‘Unequal Couple’ (love between a couple with a large age gap, usually old men and young girls), the viewer seems to find answers.
In this work, the nameless daughters are presented as active and scheming seductresses. As one daughter, already naked, submits to her father's lustful gaze, she unobtrusively holds out a bowl to her sister so that she can refill it with wine.
But Lot is also given a share of the blame for the incestuous union in this composition. Also naked, sitting upright, and caressing his daughter as he fixes her with a lustful gaze, he seems to be in a state in which, despite his drunkenness, he could have prevented the situation instead of indulging in it.
A Biblical Bacchanal
Commentary by Jennifer Moldenhauer
Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638), who was born and spent almost all of his life in Utrecht, stages this story of incest as a kind of biblical bacchanal in which nudity, lewd looks, and touches dominate. The recent events of the escape from Sodom are almost forgotten and are only hinted at by Lot’s frozen wife, distantly visible in silhouette on the right of the painting.
Our gaze initially slides from the alabaster-like skin of the naked daughter reclining in the foreground to her legs which intertwine with those of her aged father. This motif of the ‘slung-legs’ is a classic symbol of sexual union (Steinberg 1968: 343). But, meanwhile, Lot’s other daughter is already pulling him towards her with her hand on his neck and gazing at him seductively. The laid table not only allowed the artist to present his artistic skills but also to create a series of subtle hints. Next to the phallus-like vegetables, the apples catch the eye—traditionally that forbidden fruit of paradise from which Eve and Adam ate. The silk-like textiles, the fruits, and the fine Venetian drinking glass are all references to the luxury the protagonists indulge in. But the depiction also contains a warning against voluptas oculorum (the pleasure of the eye) alongside voluptas carnis (carnal lust), which distract from the Christian path of virtue.
For example, wine—synonymous with intoxication, lust, and pleasure—stands here as a reference to the incestuous union, but can also be interpreted together with bread as components of the Eucharist. Such christological symbolism in this incestuous scene plays on Lot's ambivalent character. On the one hand, it points out that Lot was a sinner who was redeemed by Christ. On the other hand, it reminds us that Lot was considered a prototype of Christ by St Augustine of Hippo, among others (Augustine, Contra Faustum, 22.41–45; see also Lowenthal 1988: 15).
By exploiting the ambiguities inherent in the theme, Wtewael provokes a series of questions in the viewer: is Lot guilty of drunkenness or incest? Are the daughters driven by lust or the desire to produce offspring?
Meanwhile, the viewers are tempted by the artist playing with their own desires and morals, and must also ask questions of themselves.
Augustine. Contra Faustum. 1887. St Augustine: The Writings against the Manichaeans and against the Donatists, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: First Series, Vol. 6, trans. by Philip Schaff (New York: The Christian Literature Company)
Lowenthal, Anne W. 1988. ‘Lot and His Daughters as Moral Dilemma’, in The Age of Rembrandt: Studies in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting, ed. by Roland E. Fleischer and Susan S. Munshower (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press), pp. 12–27
Steinberg, Leo. 1968. ‘Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà: The Missing Leg’, Art Bulletin, 50.4: 343–53
Orazio Gentileschi :
Lot's Daughters, c.1622–23 , Oil on canvas
Unknown artist, Netherlands :
Lot's Daughters, c.1600 , Marble
Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael :
Lot's Daughters, c.1610 , Oil on oak wood
The Daughters of Lot and Their Descendants
Commentary by Jennifer Moldenhauer
The story of Lot’s daughters, which tells of incest between a man chosen by God and his young daughters, is probably one of the most difficult and controversial narratives of the Old Testament. This is reflected not only in the exegeses that strive to explain the actions of all involved, but also in art: until the beginning of the sixteenth century, depictions of this part of the story of Lot were largely avoided.
The role of the girls is passive before the destruction of Sodom. Their names are not mentioned and they receive their identity only through their affiliation as the virgin daughters of Lot—but not as the betrothed of the anonymous men who later perish in Sodom. What value they have within their familial and wider social structures can be guessed from the fact that the father is willing to hand them over to collective rape without hesitation (Genesis 19:8). He is also the one who later isolates them in the mountain cave, but from this point on the roles change and the daughters become active players who—according to the narrative—plot to get their father drunk to get him to impregnate them.
The increasing popularity of this theme in sixteenth-century art may have had various causes. Foremost is certainly that the brief narrative offered artists one of the rare opportunities to show nudes within the framework of a biblical narrative. However, it is striking that in the sixteenth century there were not only artistic reflections on the theme of incest but also juridical and theological ones. For instance, between 1515 and 1565, new laws concerning incestuous and legitimate reproduction were written down in the German-speaking regions and neighbouring countries. In the same period, the philosopher and Catholic theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536) as well as the Reformers Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–64), among many others, dealt with this incestuous narrative. They did not approve of the seduction, but neither did they condemn it completely.
In summary, their argumentation was that Lot, a righteous man (2 Peter 2:7), was so drunk that he did not know what he was doing. He was therefore more guilty of drunkenness than of incest. Since any erotic moment is missing from the narrative, the daughters’ behaviour was interpreted to mean that it was not lust that drove them, but merely their ‘natural’ desire to become mothers.
By contrast, the question of Lot’s guilt is raised in all three artworks, leaving it open for the viewer to decide which sin is the most serious: the drunkenness or the incest. In the two Netherlandish depictions, Lot’s sexual lust is also obvious, as he seems to know very well what he is doing and to be giving in to his desires rather than avoiding the situation. This also quite obviously hints at the question of who actually initiated the incest. Or to put it more drastically: who raped whom? This is a question that has been asked in recent times, especially in feminist theology and gender studies.
These artistic depictions create the image of young women whose full-grown bodies are not only meant to arouse desire, but also to emphasize their active role and the autonomy of their decisions. However, caution should be used in reading the unmarried girls as autonomous adult women, considering that the average age of marriage for girls at the time began at about 13.
Orazio Gentileschi’s painting is more restrained in this respect and hints at the sins of the previous two nights rather unemotionally. Rather, it refers to the yet unknown future in which the daughters will give birth to their sons Moab (‘from my father’) and Ben-Ammi (‘son of my clan’), who will become the progenitors of two great nations. Although a polemic against these two peoples, whose names reveal their incestuous origins, prevails in the Old Testament, the book of Ruth makes a Moabite woman the ancestress of the Judean royal house. Luther points out in this context that Christ is thus also a descendant of Lot. However, since Lot plays only a subordinate and somewhat passive role in the biblical narrative about the procreation of Moab, one is more inclined to focus on the daughter who gave birth to him, as the ancestral mother of a large people, the Judaean royal house, and Jesus Christ himself.
Bissel, Raymond Ward. 1969. ‘Orazio Gentileschi and the Theme of “Lot and His Daughters”’, Bulletin: The National Gallery of Canada, 14: 16–28
Exum, J. Cheryl. 2000. ‘Desire Distorted and Exhibited: Lot and His Daughters in Psychoanalysis, Painting, and Film’, in A Wise and Discerning Mind: Essays in Honor of Burke O. Long, ed. by Saul M. Olyan and Robert C. Culley (Providence, RI: Brown Judaic Studies), pp. 83–108
Fischer, Irmtraud. 1999. ‘Genesis 12–50. Die Ursprungsgeschichte Israels als Frauengeschichte’, in Kompendium feministische Bibelauslegun, ed. by Luise Schottroff and Marie-Theres Wacker (Gütersloh: Christian Kaiser Verlag), pp. 12–25
Lange, Justus. 2021. ‘Verbotene Liebe? Lot und seine Töchter im Spannungsfeld von biblischer Historie, Genremalerei und Reformation’, in Con bella maniera, Festgabe für Peter Seiler, ed. by Michail Chatzidakis et al. (Heidelberg: arthistoricum.net), pp. 137–58, available at https://www.doi.org/10.11588/arthistoricum.855.c11073
Seifert, Elke. 1994. ‘Lot und seine Töchter. Eine Hermeneutik des Verdachts’, in Feministische Hermeneutik und Erstes Testament. Analysen und Interpretationen, ed. by Hedwig Jahnow (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer), pp. 48–66
Ties, Hanns-Paul. 2005. Albrecht Altdorfers ‘Lot und seine Töchter’ und die Ambivalenz von Erotik und Moral in der Aktmalerei der nordischen Renaissance, Wiener Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte 54, (Vienna: Universität Wien), pp. 177–221