Ben Quash: The destruction of the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the narrow escape of Lot and his two daughters, and the not-quite escape of his wife, has for many centuries been read by Christians as a prefiguration of the Last Judgement in which the world will be judged and, as many texts in the New Testament say, will also be destroyed. And so the imagery of this story has come back and back, both in texts and in artwork, as a way also of looking ahead to the judgement and the destruction that may yet be to come.
And I think that’s part of what helps us understand my first work of art: Joachim Patinir’s portrayal, in this vast landscape in which the figures are so tiny, of the destruction of the two cities.
You can see on the right-hand side the two angels leading Lot and his daughters along a little, narrow path. And they’ve gone through the strange rock formation that dominates the centre of the scene, and in particular through the little opening in those rocks, which looks like a rather, kind of, roughly cut keyhole. Escaping, if you like, through this keyhole into a new and safer space, which is demarcated very dramatically from the distance in which we see the flaming cities, the red sky, and the tiny little speck of white which represents Lot’s wife turned into salt. This desperately left-behind figure, a figure which Patinir represents so tinily, but yet even in that microscopic way, so powerfully.
Jewish tradition has tried to fill in some of the backstory of what might have happened in the city of Sodom, before they fled under the guidance of two angels, to explain why it is that she seems to come to such a cruel end—imagining, for example, that she was less hospitable than her husband when these two angelic figures arrived in the city and needed shelter.
There’s even an imagination that one of her acts of inhospitality was to refuse salt to the visitors. So there’s a particular kind of irony in the fact that salt is what she’s turned into. Lot though, too, has problematic dimensions to him, even in the biblical text. He offers, at one point, his daughters to the people of the city who are thumping on the door, asking for the angels to be given over into their hands and abused. And the fact that he offers his daughters in place of his guests might seem to us to be morally very disturbing.
So in both cases we’re dealing with figures who are perhaps not very obviously either good or bad. And that again points up the difficulty of this situation of judgement. And it might actually cause us to ask questions of ourselves who are neither wholly good or wholly bad. How will we fare if faced with the same sorts of challenges as this family?
My second work is one of the very earliest examples of English stained glass.
It’s one of a series of windows in Canterbury Cathedral, often called the Bible windows. And the subjects, the biblical subjects, in the windows are very carefully arranged in order to play off one another in important ways.
This particular scene which shows Lot and his two daughters and the two angels in the upper left escaping from the city, and then very prominently—very, very unlike the Patinir image—Lot’s wife as the central axis, if you like, of this composition: her hands facing in one direction, open almost in a gesture of prayer, and her head turning in the other direction, poised, as it were, facing—almost facing—two ways, capturing that sense of the double pull of the call of God manifested in the angels and the call to look back at the city, which is of course her downfall.
And this panel of the window is part of a larger scheme that explores the three magi who come to visit the Christ child. And they too, as with Lot and his family, are given an angelic warning to go back by another route to escape Herod. And so part of what this window is doing in its context is exploring the question of how to listen to the divine command, how to be obedient to the divine command, and also how to avoid danger. What the magi successfully achieve, Lot’s wife doesn’t.
One of the things that I find really striking about the stained-glass composition is there’s something elemental about it: the four traditional elements out of which the world is made. There’s fire in the top right, water at bottom right, earth—very green and verdant earth of the mountainside—at bottom left, and this airy space with which the angelic beings are associated at top left. And that captures something about a fundamental order to the world, which is, at the same time, an order that perhaps has been put out of joint in some way by the events in Sodom and Gomorrah. The sense of a moral disorder in the universe which is also having an effect on the natural order of the universe, so that two of those elements, the flames and the water, are compressing this city as we see it tumbling into ruin, almost in a way that anticipates some of the style of Cubist art in the twentieth century. All of these very bright, angular building blocks of the city, these different components of the city, all tumbling down, with fire raining down from heaven above, and water bubbling up from beneath. So the natural order is mirroring, if you like, the moral order—or rather the moral disorder—of the world. It’s becoming destructive.
And there can be few more vivid reminders of how the world can continue to teeter on destruction, how it can continue to be out of joint, than this photograph, my third image, which is a photograph of the city of Dresden after the fire-bombing by Allied forces. This photograph taken from a tower of the town hall in Dresden looking over the city at the end of the Second World War. And in the foreground, as you can see, there’s a sandstone figure, often assumed to be an angel, but in fact representing the personification of a virtue—one of sixteen Virtues, in fact, that were part of the town hall’s decorative scheme. And this figure carved by August Schreitmüller personifies in particular the virtue of benevolence, or kindness, or charity. And it’s intensely poignant that this figure surveys an ocean of destroyed buildings, representing, of course, tens of thousands of destroyed lives, surveying the effects of the failure of human charity, of human benevolence.
How might this carved figure in Dresden help us to think in a new way about the figure of Lot’s wife? Her punishment is, of course, for looking back when she shouldn’t have done. But in many ways looking back is a good thing. A turning from sin is a form of turning away from what is bad towards what is good. And turning, therefore, is something that Christ’s disciples are called to do in the New Testament. The word for repentance, metanoia, literally means ‘a turning around’. And similarly, a looking back can be a form of proper remembering. This photograph showing us the destruction of Dresden is a proper call to us to remember something of great value.
So, it may be that we shouldn’t entirely dismiss Lot’s wife as someone with nothing to teach us, nothing to give us. It may be that her turning was a wrong one, a turning perhaps away from what she should’ve been oriented towards. But she might also stand for us as a reminder that we should not forget the cost, the casualties, of great catastrophes like that which afflicted the city of Dresden, and indeed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. And indeed, the fact that she is enshrined, her story is told again and again in Scripture as are the stories of those destroyed cities, reminds us that we should remember them and that, in a certain way, we should be like Lot’s wife in looking once again at them in order to seek to learn from them.
And all of that, for me, is captured—that paradox, if you like, of Lot’s wife, somebody who’s both there to teach us something as well as to warn us against something—is captured in the fact that she’s made, she’s turned into salt because salt is perhaps one of the most paradoxical of substances. It’s both a good and a bad thing, potentially.
Salt can be something that’s used to destroy fields and make them infertile, incapable of growing good things anymore.
But at the same time, salt adds savour to things. It has a role in purification. It’s often traditionally been used in exorcisms. And we need salt for life . There is a tradition that, that animals would come and lick the statue of Lot’s wife so that she became, if you like, a life-giving presence in the landscape. So, salt has this double sense of both good and bad, both life-giving and potentially a representation of destruction. And that’s one of the reasons why the preservation of Lot’s wife—salt itself, of course, being something that has the power of preservation—the preservation of Lot’s wife in this form may be something that we can celebrate and learn from, as well as perhaps be challenged by.
19 The two angels came to Sodom in the evening; and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed himself with his face to the earth, 2and said, “My lords, turn aside, I pray you, to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you may rise up early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the street.” 3But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. 4But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; 5and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” 6Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, 7and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. 8Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” 9But they said, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came to sojourn, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and drew near to break the door. 10But the men put forth their hands and brought Lot into the house to them, and shut the door. 11And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they wearied themselves groping for the door.
12 Then the men said to Lot, “Have you any one else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or any one you have in the city, bring them out of the place; 13for we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.” 14So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, “Up, get out of this place; for the Lord is about to destroy the city.” But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting.
15 When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Arise, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be consumed in the punishment of the city.” 16But he lingered; so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him forth and set him outside the city. 17And when they had brought them forth, they said, “Flee for your life; do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley; flee to the hills, lest you be consumed.” 18And Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lords; 19behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life; but I cannot flee to the hills, lest the disaster overtake me, and I die. 20Behold, yonder city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one?—and my life will be saved!” 21He said to him, “Behold, I grant you this favor also, that I will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. 22Make haste, escape there; for I can do nothing till you arrive there.” Therefore the name of the city was called Zoʹar. 23The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoʹar.
24 Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorʹrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; 25and he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. 26But Lot’s wife behind him looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. 27And Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord; 28and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorʹrah and toward all the land of the valley, and beheld, and lo, smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace.
29 So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot dwelt.