Posts from the ‘Stories in Art’ category

Stories in Art: Rebekah at the Well

Saturday, June 1st, 2013
Rebecca at the Well

Nicolas Poussin, Rebecca at the Well, 1648, Musée du Louvre, Paris

This is my sixth article in a monthly series of articles about paintings that tell ancient stories, drawing from my Stories in Art project. Please click here for a full list of articles in this series.

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After the death of Abraham’s wife Sarah (Genesis 23), the focus of the story shifts to the next generation: their son Isaac and his wife Rebekah. In Genesis 24, Abraham sends his most trusted servant to find a wife for our second patriarch, and that scene is the subject of one of my favorite paintings.

In 2007, when I started my Stories in Art project that forms the basis of this series of articles, I chose Nicolas Poussin’s Rebecca at the Well to feature in the site’s design. To me, this painting is a crystal clear example of a painting that makes a lot more sense once you know the story.

“She went down to the spring, filled her jar and came up again. The servant hurried to meet her and said, “Please give me a little water from your jar.”
“Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered the jar to her hands and gave him a drink. After she had given him a drink, she said, “I’ll draw water for your camels too, until they have had enough to drink.” 
So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels.
Without saying a word, the man watched her closely to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful.”
 – Genesis 24:16-21

On the surface, it’s a fairly simple scene. A man approaches a group of lovely women, he speaks to the most beautiful woman, and offers her a gift, which she accepts graciously. It’s a pleasant scene and Poussin used this gathering of lovely women as an opportunity to show off his skills with flowing drapery and vibrant colors.

But if you know the story of Eliezer’s journey to find a wife for Isaac, the scene takes on new meaning. This may appear to be a commonplace scene of a man flirting with a beautiful woman, but it is in fact a scene of a loyal servant making an admirable decision. When Eliezer arrived at the well in Abraham’s homeland, he prayed to God to make his journey successful, and he asked that the woman he was searching for be the woman who offered to draw water from the well for his camels.

This is a quiet yet earth-shattering moment in the early chapters of our history. Eliezer could have asked God to show him the most beautiful woman, or the wealthiest woman, or the woman most likely to bear healthy sons, but instead, he asked God to help him find the kindest most generous woman to be our second matriarch. Eliezer valued kindness and generosity over beauty and wealth. If only we could all be a little more like Eliezer.

This is one of the only positive stories about a woman in the bible. Several thousand years before women were equal partners in relationships with men, stories about biblical women were about sexual violence, acts of desperation or innocent pawns among deceitful men. Refreshingly, the story of Rebekah at the Well is the story of how she was chosen to be Isaac’s wife because of her kindness and generosity. For this reason, I’m proud to be named Rebecca.

Rebecca at the Well

Nicola Grassi, Rebecca at the Well, c. 1720, San Francesco della Vigna, Venice

Of course, artists chose to ignore this rare positive message for women, and instead, spun the story to focus on our less flattering traits. After Rebekah offered water to Eliezer’s camels, Eliezer offered her gifts of jewelry and then asked to meet her family. By focusing on the moment when Rebekah accepts the jewels from Eliezer, artists made a selfless young woman appear vain and self-involved. In the case of Nicola Grassi’s gorgeous yet unfortunate painting on the right, she also appears rather smug and arrogant as she is singled out by the mysterious stranger. Click on the painting on the right to see more scenes like this.

This brings us back to Poussin’s scene, which also shows the moment when Rebekah accepts Eliezer gifts. One of the many reason I love this painting is because Rebekah appears far more humble in this scene than in Grassi’s. The wealthy stranger has disrupted the bustling daily scene of gathering water from the well, and for Poussin, this was a perfect opportunity to show his skills. Poussin was a master at designing a scene that is both busy and orderly, chaotic and balanced, scattered and focused. 

To truly appreciate Poussin’s masterful composition, I have broken down the painting in to its parts to see how Poussin balanced warm colors with cool colors, while also balancing bold colors with neutral colors. Poussin leads our eye around this scene by following the gazes of the women and the direction of their arms. Please explore this composition by rolling your mouse over the categories below.


skin cool warm bold neutral

I would have to travel to Paris to see Poussin’s masterpiece in person, but I only have to walk around the corner to see a painting inspired by Poussin. Sebastien Bourdon was a brilliant French artist who studied Poussin and drew inspiration from his compositions. Bourdon’s painting of Rebecca at the Well hangs in the finest of the galleries at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Scroll down to see for yourself how Bourdon was inspired by Poussin.



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Michelangelo’s Drawings: Study for the Madonna

Sunday, April 28th, 2013
Michelangelo Casa Buonarroti 1508

Michelangelo, Study for the Head of the Madonna for the Doni Tondo, 1508,Casa Buonarroti, Florence. Photo Source:

This past Tuesday, the Museum of Fine Arts opened an exhibit of 26 drawings by Michelangelo, borrowed from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence. I had to wait five whole days before I could get over there to see the exhibit. It’s an extremely rare treat to see works by Michelangelo in the United States, not to mention in my own neighborhood.

Thank you to the MFA for exhibiting Michelangelo’s Drawings and giving me the chance to notice an interesting connection between two unrelated works.

When I saw the drawing on the right at the MFA, my first thought was of the figure of Jonah on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. When I read the label, I realized my mistake. It’s a study for the Doni Tondo, Michelangelo’s painting of the Holy Family for the Doni family. But was I wrong?

According to the Uffizi’s website, Michelangelo painted the Doni Tondo in 1506-08, and according to Casa Buonarroti’s website, the drawing is dated 1508. So it’s quite likely (and who am I to argue with the scholars) that this drawing is a study for the figure of the Madonna for the Doni Tondo.

But Michelangelo also started painting the Sistine Chapel Ceiling in 1508, so it’s also possible that this drawing is mislabeled, and it’s actually a study for the figure of Jonah in the Sistine Chapel.

Unfortunately, my theory falls apart when you consider that Michelangelo frescoed the ceiling from one end to the other, and that he started on the other end (the “Noah” end). In 1508, he was still a few years away from painting Jonah.

But … take a close look at the open mouth of the figure in the drawing (above), then take a look at the closed mouth of the Madonna in the Doni Tondo (below left), and the open mouth of Jonah from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling (below right).

You decide.

Michelangelo's Doni Tondo Michelangelo's Jonah from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling
Doni Tondo, 1506-1508,
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
Photo source: Wikipedia
The Prophet Jonah, 1508-1512,
The Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Vatican City.
Photo source: The Web Gallery of Art


Shameless self-promotion: 
In 2006, I created an interactive exploration of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, identifying each figure in each panel. Please click here to visit my Sistine Chapel Project, and to see where Jonah is on the ceiling.

Stories in Art: Abraham and Isaac

Monday, April 1st, 2013

Rembrandt, The Sacrifice of Abraham, 1635, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

This is my fifth article in a monthly series of articles about paintings that tell ancient stories, drawing from my Stories in Art project.
Please click here for a full list of articles in this series.

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The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the most frustrating and fascinating stories in the bible. It’s frustrating because God gave Abraham an impossible task, and we’ll never know what would have happened if an angel had not interceded at the last minute. It’s fascinating for many, many reasons including the fact that artists nearly always depict the exact same moment of this complex story.

The story is brief, yet heavily weighed down by disturbing questions. God told Abraham to make the ultimate sacrifice: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you” (Genesis 22) Although God had already asked a lot of Abraham by this point in his life, the old man dutifully set out to do as he was instructed. He bound his son and raised his knife, and then suddenly an angel appeared. The angel stopped Abraham, and pointed out a ram to be sacrificed instead.

Rembrandt’s The Sacrifice of Abraham captures this scene perfectly. Isaac is utterly defenseless and his vulnerability is almost painful to the viewer. Abraham is aged but bent forward with deliberate intention. His hand covering his son’s face is both violent and merciful, while his other hand dropped his knife when the angel arrived. Rembrandt depicted the utmost crucial moment of this story: the exact moment when the angel arrived and surprised Abraham. His knife has only fallen a few inches, which emphasizes the immediacy of this essential moment.

Many artists have taken on this intricate story, and paintings that depict well-known stories often vary in the exact moment that the artist chooses to depict. Some paint the early moments of a story while others paint the conclusion. In every single painting of Abraham and Isaac that I know of, the artist depicted the exact same moment in the story: the moment when the angel stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son. This is the moment when we learn that God wasn’t going to let Abraham hurt his son, and it’s also the moment when we learn that we’ll never know if Abraham was going to do it or not. This crucial moment sums up the entire story and opens up so many more questions.

To examine those questions, we’ll take a closer look at the characters in this scene, and other paintings that depict this deciding moment.


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac, 1601-2, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence


Although Abraham is the main character of this story, Isaac  is often the most compelling figure in the scene. This is perhaps most true in Caravaggio’s take on the Abraham and Isaac story. Caravaggio often identifies with the victims in his paintings, and his Isaac is one of his most heart-wrenching figures. Both of Abraham’s arms draw our attention directly to Isaac, especially with Abraham’s firm grip on his knife and on Isaac’s neck. The danger here is imminent, and Isaac’s terror is acute. His expression conveys not only terror, but also shock and disbelief. Caravaggio’s scene draws our attention to the betrayal that Isaac must have felt when his father showed his determination to sacrifice him.

In depicting a story about a man whose choices are guided by God’s angels, some artists drew our focus to the terror of the innocent pawn caught in the middle of a dangerous test.


Was Abraham really going to kill his son? I find it incredibly frustrating that we’ll never know the answer to this question because the angel arrived before we find out if Abraham was about to follow through. Abraham was nothing if not dutiful, and he seemed intent on following God’s instructions regardless of how utterly crushed and bewildered he must have felt after hearing God’s command to sacrifice his long-awaited son.


Lodovico Cigoli, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1607, Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

Maybe Abraham knew all along that he would never have to follow through and actually kill his son. God had promised that Isaac would one day be a father, so Isaac would have to survive this ordeal somehow. But God works in mysterious ways, and even as Abraham raised his knife over his son, did he question whether God would allow his son to live?

Abraham must have been tortured by his thoughts in this moment, and few artists have managed to capture those emotions in the face of Abraham. Instead, it’s Abraham’s arms that tell the story: one arm restrains his son while the other arm is stopped in mid-air. Abraham is startled by the angel’s sudden arrival, and he turns away from his son to face the angel.

The Angel: 

If you have every wondered what you would have done if God had tested you by asking you to sacrifice your son, then perhaps you have also wondered if God has ever sent an angel to guide your actions. Does God still send angels to stop us from doing terrible things? Perhaps history is full of moments that look just like paintings of Abraham and Isaac, and there are millions of never-painted scenes of angels arriving just in time. The scene of an angel stopping Abraham gives us hope that if we are as dutiful as Abraham, then God won’t let us do anything terrible.

The Feud that Sparked the Renaissance


Lorenzo Ghiberti, Sacrifice of Isaac, 1401, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence

The story of Abraham and Isaac has a very special place in the history of art. In 1401, several artists entered a competition for the prestigious job of decorating the doors of the Baptistery of St. John in Florence. The winner of the competition, Lorenzo Ghiberti, went on to spend the next fifty years of his life casting spectacular scenes on the bronze doors of the baptistery, while the runner-up went on to become the ingenious architect of Florence’s most recognizable feature: the enormous dome of the cathedral.

This baptistery competition, which jump-started the spectacular period of artistic growth known as the Renaissance, focused on the theme of Abraham and Isaac. The competitors were to submit a bas-relief panel illustrating this dramatic scene. It is telling that this theme was chosen for the competition among so many compelling religious themes. The winner of the competition was the first to capture the emotional depth of this scene, as well as the pictorial challenges of the moment that changed everything.

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Stories in Art: Abraham and Hagar

Friday, March 1st, 2013
Guercino Abraham Casting Out Hagar and Ishmael, 1657 Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

Guercino, Abraham Casting Out Hagar and Ishmael

This is my fourth article in a monthly series of articles about paintings that tell ancient stories, drawing from my Stories in Art project.
Please click here for a full list of articles in this series.

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Abraham is the first common ancestor of the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims, and his stories in the bible are among the most fascinating and complex. In Genesis 21, the patriarch of three faiths finds himself caught between his wife, her maid, and their two sons. Abraham faced an unpleasant domestic dispute, and we are reminded daily of the dire consequences. What happened so long ago that we are still feeling the effects every day?

The Story of Hagar:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:1
[The Lord said] “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them … So shall your offspring be.” – Genesis 15:5

God promised that Abraham would be the father of a great nation, but after being married to Sarah for many years, they did not yet have a son. So Sarah sent her maid Hagar to sleep with her husband, hoping that “… perhaps I can build a family through her.” (Genesis 16:2). Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, and then God fulfilled his promise to Abraham and Sarah. They named their long-awaited son Isaac and one day, Ishmael mocked Isaac. Sarah insisted that Abraham send Hagar and her son away, and he did.  Hagar and Ishmael wandered in the dessert and when their food ran out, God sent an angel to revive them and ensure their safety. Isaac became a patriarch of the Jews and Ishmael became the ancestor of the Muslims.

Before we get into the beautiful and troubling paintings that depict the rejection of Abraham’s first son, we’ll dig in to the decisions that led to the moment when the angel interceded.

Sarah’s Decisions:

Adriaen van der Werff Sarah Bringing Hagar to Abraham, 1696 The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Adriaen van der Werff, Sarah Bringing Hagar to Abraham, 1696, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 (see inset above) forms the foundation of three major world religions, and yet, in those early chapters, one wonders how Abraham is supposed to have so many descendants if he doesn’t have a son. Ten years after they left their father’s household in search of the promised land, God had still not given Sarah a son. To ensure that Abraham would be a father, Sarah sent her maid Hagar to sleep with her husband.

Was Sarah selfless or desperate? Was she giving up on God’s promise, or demonstrating her true faith by ensuring that His promise would come to pass? When God shows us our destiny, should we sit back and wait for God to make things happen, or is it our job to fulfill our own destiny by taking action? This is not a simple question, but God helps those who help themselves and Sarah took matters in her own hands. Whether Sarah did the right thing or not, she set in to motion a chain of events that continues today.

Adriaen van der Werff summarized this complex situation by depicting this dynamic trio together in Abraham’s bedroom. Abraham and Sarah share a glance as if to agree on this course of action, while Hagar accepts her fate in an attitude that suggests passivity as well as piety.

Ishmael was born to Abraham and Hagar, and then years later, Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah. Hagar’s son mocked Sarah’s son, and Sarah demanded that Hagar and her son be sent away so that Ishmael would not inherit along with her own son. Again, Sarah’s actions can be called in to question. Was she just being jealous and over-protective, or was she helping to fulfill their destiny by ensuring that Isaac, the rightful heir, inherited God’s promised land from his father.

Nicolaes Maes Abraham Dismissing Hagar and Ishmael, 1653 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Nicolaes Maes, Abraham Dismissing Hagar and Ishmael, 1653, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Abraham’s Decision:

Abraham reluctantly cast his firstborn son and his mother out of his household, denying them his protection and perhaps their survival. Was the father of three faiths a bad father? A parent’s duty is to protect and provide, but who would envy Abraham for having to choose between appeasing his wife and protecting his son? Abraham is not a bad father, and he dutifully kept the peace in his household by following the instructions of both God and his wife. God saved Abraham from having to make an impossible choice by assuring him that he was doing the right thing.  In Genesis 21:11, God told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, and not to be concerned about them because He will make this son in to a nation as well.

In Nicolas Maes’ Dismissing Hagar and Ishmael, and other similar paintings, the expressions of the three characters tell the story plainly: Hagar is passive and disappointed, Ishmael is dejected and perhaps resentful, and Abraham is apologetic yet offers a gesture that suggests Ishmael’s blessing.

Paintings of angels interceding
on behalf of the sons of Abraham.

Guercino The Angel Appears to Hagar and Ishmael, 1652-3 National Gallery, London

Guercino, The Angel Appears to Hagar and Ishmael, 1652-3, National Gallery, London

The text makes it clear that God protected and guaranteed a promising future for both of Abraham’s sons, but it also draws a sharp contrast between the favored son and the rejected son. While some artists reinforced the contrast between the sons, others drew attention to their similarities. By depicting the scene of the angel interceding when Ishmael was close to death, artists remind us of a similar scene in the very next chapter of Genesis when an angel will intercede to save Isaac’s life. We are reminded that God favored and protected both sons, and ensured that they would both live to fulfill their destiny of becoming the fathers of great nations.

Guercino’s painting in the London National Gallery depicts the moment when Ishmael was near death, and an angel arrived to point Hagar towards a well that would save their lives. His painting reminds us that God favored and protected Abraham’s outcast son Ishmael.

Giambattista Pittoni Sacrifice of Isaac, c. 1720 San Francesco della Vigna, Venice

Giambattista Pittoni, Sacrifice of Isaac, c. 1720, San Francesco della Vigna, Venice

Many paintings such as Pittoni’s Sacrifice of Isaac depict the moment when Isaac was also near death and an angel interceded to save him. In both scenes, the artists highlight the crucial moment between life and death when the angel arrived to change the course of the story. God put both Ishmael and Isaac in a life-threatening situation, then sent an angel to intercede and save them. In seeing the connection between  two scenes, we are reminded that God favored all of Abraham’s sons, not just the descendants of Isaac.

For centuries, hatred has grown between the sons of “the chosen one” and the sons of the outcast, and that hatred can be traced back to this story. Our present-day tragedies began with the rejection of an innocent woman and her son, but today’s situation is far more complex than the short verses of Genesis 21.

Am I really being too naive to hope that we can have peace if we can remember that God favored and protected both of Abraham’s sons, and not just one of them? Why must we focus on our differences when we have so much in common? If we knew the answer to this question then the last few millenia would have been very different.

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In next month’s article, we will take a much closer look at paintings that depict ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’: the moment when an angel stops Abraham from sacrificing his son. Until then, I leave you with a clip from a phenomenal episode of ‘The West Wing’, which was written and aired soon after September 11, 2001. In this episode, the White House is on lockdown because of a potential terrorist threat, and a school group is stuck at the White House. In this scene, the First Lady (Stockard Channing) tells them the story of Isaac and Ishmael in response to the question “How did all this start?” (beginning at 1:32 in this clip).

Clip from ‘Isaac and Ishmael’, Season 3 of ‘The West Wing’, written by Aaron Sorkin, first aired on October 3, 2001.

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Stories in Art: Lot and His Daughters

Friday, February 1st, 2013

Please click here for a full list of articles in this series.

This is my third article in a monthly series of articles about paintings that tell ancient stories, drawing from my Stories in Art project. I’m working my way chronologically through the Old Testament, so let’s review so far. Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, and God punished them by exiling them and sentencing women to painful childbirth. Cain killed Abel, and God punished him by making him a homeless wanderer. Ham didn’t turn away from his father’s shame, and God punished him by sentencing his descendants to slavery.

And now we come to Lot, whose daughters committed the unquestionably horrendous crime of incest. God sentenced Lot’s descendants to become the Kings of Israel and and the savior of mankind. God’s justice is truly beyond our understanding. Yes, that’s right, Lot is an ancestor of King David, and therefore also of Jesus Christ, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

The less said about the story of Lot and his daughters the better because this is a super-creepy story. Of course, some painters managed to make this scene much creepier than it needed to be. So what’s the deal here? In Genesis 19, Lot and his daughters were saved by God from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and they ended up living in a cave. Lot’s daughters found a “brilliant” solution to the procreation problem since all of the eligible bachelors had been destroyed. They got their father drunk to preserve his ignorance, and they slept with him.

I have several questions I wish to ask, and they all start with “Why?”, but for our purposes, let’s focus on this one: “Why paint this scene?” The short answer is that it’s from the bible, and it was important to illustrate the bible to a largely illiterate society. True enough, but that’s never the whole story. Sex sells, and thanks to the bible, artists got to paint some pretty saucy scenes and not get in trouble for it. 

Goltzius, Lot and his Daughters

Hendrick Goltzius
Lot and his Daughters, 1616
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

In my opinion, the creepiest depiction of Lot and his Daughters is by Hendrick Goltzius. No one went further out of their way to maximize the creepiness of this story. Goltzius imagines Lot as Bacchus, the host of a drunken orgy! What was wrong with this guy? Maybe he was hoping that his presumably male audience would be blissfully ignorant of this somewhat obscure biblical story and be able to focus on what’s important here, the ever popular myth that men tell themselves: chicks dig old men. I can’t stomach this painting for more than a moment, but if I could, I would applaud Goltzius for his truly gorgeous composition, and the masterful way that he twists this theme in to an opportunity to depict both the front and back of a female nude. Well done, creepy talented painter, well done.

Lot was saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for this? It’s hard to find a palatable moral in this story, but consider this: the sons of Noah and the daughters of Lot have three factors in common. They were singled-out to be saved from destruction, they made an effort to preserve the dignity of their father, and at least some of their descendants were rewarded by God’s favoritism.

After ‘the incident’, Lot’s eldest daughter gave birth to a son named Moab who became the father of the Moabites. Many, many generations later, we come to the Book of Ruth, which is story about a Moabite woman who married a man from Bethlehem, and remained loyal to his family after his death. Ruth becomes the mother of Obed, who was the father of Jesse, who was the father of  King David, who was an ancestor of Jesus Christ.

Gentileschi, Lot and his Daughters

Orazio Gentileschi
Lot and His Daughters, 1621-22
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

This painting by Orazio Gentileschi (right) is one of the only paintings of Lot and his Daughters that I know where Lot doesn’t look like the host of a naked picnic. Gentileschi was one of the shining stars of the Baroque era, and he managed to craft a compelling scene without taking liberties with the story. He shows a little skin, but nothing like Goltzius, and he hints at the context by showing an empty wine jug, and a burning city in the distance.

I feel like a creep for even mentioning this, but Orazio Gentileschi often used his own daughter as a model in his paintings. If the model for Lot’s daughter was Orazio’s own daughter Artemisia, then this painting might actually be the creepiest one of them all.

Personally, I think this story is plenty creepy all on it’s own, especially if you read the rest of Genesis 19, and it is beyond my understanding why the following painters went out of their way to make this scene so much more creepy than it already is on it’s own:

Goltzius, Lot and his Daughters

Hendrick Goltzius
Lot and his Daughters, 1616
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Hayez, Lot and his Daughters

Francesco Hayez
Lot and his Daughters, 1833
Private Collection, Britain

Massys, Lot and his Daughters

Jan Massys
Lot and His Daughters, 1565
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Wtewael, Lot and his Daughters

Joachim Wtewael
Lot and his Daughters, c. 1600
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Troy, Lot with his Daughters

Jean-François de Troy
Lot with his Daughters, 1721
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg



















Stay tuned for next month’s article on Abraham’s efforts to ensure domestic tranquility by kicking his first son’s mother to the curb.

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Stories in Art: Cain & Abel

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Cain and Abel, 1542-44
Santa Maria della Salute, Venice

Please click here for a full list of articles in this series.

This is the second in a series of posts about Stories in Art. The first one was about Adam and Eve, and of course, after that comes the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4). The story of Cain and Abel is incredibly short and incredibly fascinating, but paintings of Cain and Abel are actually kind of boring. Stories about women in the hands of male painters are way more interesting, but we need to get through two important stories before we can get back to the interesting paintings. This is a short post about brothers: the sons of Adam and the sons of Noah.

Cain and Abel were brothers. God favored Abel, so Cain killed Abel. I know very little about the very complicated relationships between brothers so I won’t say anything here about competition, favoritism, jealousy or the inability of primitive men to express their emotions and deal with their feelings non-violently. Nope, I won’t say anything here about that, but I will show you a painting of Cain killing Abel. By itself, this painting is really not that interesting, but Titian painted this for Venice’s Santa Maria della Salute, and he paired it with two other scenes of men raising their arms ready to strike. Click on this image, then click on ‘Other works at Santa Maria della Salute’ to see this painting paired with David poised to strike Goliath and Abraham poised to sacrifice Isaac.


Carlo Saraceni
Drunkenness of Noah
Private collection

The Book of Genesis is full of stories that make us wish we could ask the authors a few follow-up questions and The Drunkenness of Noah (Genesis 9:20) is certainly one of them. We all know Noah’s story: God told Noah to build an ark, Noah and his family spent 40 days on a boat with two of every animal and then had to rebuild after the flood.  The story is rich with vivid imagery, but some artists opted to focus on a strange but important scene that happens after all that. Noah built a vineyard, and he got so drunk that he took his clothes off. His son Ham saw this and told his brothers Shem and Japheth about it. Instead of doing nothing and talking about it like Ham had done, Shem and Japheth went to their father backwards so they couldn’t see him, and they covered him up. This painting by Saraceni does a wonderful job of contrasting Ham with his brothers. By depicting Shem and Japheth with their arms blocking their eyes, it calls attention to the important difference between how the brothers handled the situation.

These are very simple stories about right and wrong that illustrate what not to do. God punished both Cain and Ham harshly by sentencing them to hardships and favoring the descendants of their brothers. In doing so, God established the line of the chosen ones from among the brothers who didn’t do wrong. The descendants of Cain all died in the flood, and the descendants of Ham (the Canaanites) became slaves to the descendants of his brothers. Cain’s brother Seth became the ancestor of Noah, and Noah’s son Shem becomes the ancestor of Abraham, David and Jesus.

We’ll revisit the theme of brothers again when we get to Jacob. Until then, we have the incredibly creepy paintings of Lot and his daughters to look forward to.

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Stories in Art: Adam and Eve

Saturday, December 1st, 2012

Please click here for a full list of articles in this series.

Disclaimer: This post has nudity, and that’s something to be ashamed of. Just ask Eve.

Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12

I like to think of myself as a weekend art historian. I’m no scholar, but I know a few things, and I love love love studying art history. This is my blog, and I can be a big nerd if I want to, so I’m going to.

This is the first in a series of monthly posts about paintings that tell stories, drawing from my ‘Stories in Art‘ project. As the great Maria von Trapp once said, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” Sorry to start things off with a really corny quote, but as you will see, artists always quote stuff they love.

Adam and Eve

Michelangelo’s Creation of Eve, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12

“In the beginning” God created the world, including the first man and the first woman. If you read through a few more books of the Old Testament and do the math, this happened about 6,000 years ago, which doesn’t make any sense AT ALL, but we can talk about that later.

Anyway, Genesis chapter 2 tells the story of Adam and Eve, and we turn to our old friend Michelangelo for some visual references. First, the Creation of Adam, and then the Creation of Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. Then, in chapter 3, things got weird. Anyone who has had some trouble following instructions can identify with this part of the story. God said don’t eat, and Eve ate. Thanks Eve.

This began a long history of paintings that illustrate a simple but destructive notion: “women can’t be trusted.” Check out this painting by Johann Loth (below). This celebration of skin tones tells a simple story: She’s hot, but she’s trouble.

Johann Carl Loth’s Eve Tempting Adam, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1655

Click on Loth’s painting on the right, then click on Loth’s name (top left) to see some of his other images of strong female biblical characters turned into dangerous temptresses. Thanks Loth.

So, Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden of Eden, and this scene (known as “The Expulsion” in art history) became important to a series of artistic “quotations”. When a writer tries to show that he is well-read, he makes reference to well-known literary masters. It’s the same thing with art history. In the Renaissance and Baroque eras, when an artist was trying to make a name for himself, he would deliberately make the viewer think of a famous masterpiece by incorporating a well-known scene into his work.

In a little chapel in an out-of-the-way church in Florence, the early Renaissance artist Masaccio frescoed the scene of The Expulsion (1426-7) (below). It may look ‘primitive’ to us, but at the time, the scene’s raw emotion was so captivating, that other artists began to ‘quote’ this scene. In Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise (1425-52), a similar version of this scene can be found in the bottom-right of the Garden of Eden panel (below). Michelangelo’s scene on Sistine Chapel Ceiling (1508-12) is also reminiscent of his fellow Florentine’s depiction.

The Medici Venus, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Masaccio was also quoting a previous master, and Michelangelo’s Expulsion was also famously quoted. One of the most influential sculptures from antiquity is a sculpture of Venus where the Goddess of Love covers herself with her arms rather than standing triumphantly like a male god. Masaccio recognized that this gesture of modesty applies perfectly to Eve and her revelation that nudity is shameful. 

This ancient Greek sculpture was known by many Roman copies, so Masaccio could have easily been aware of it. In fact, it’s possible that he was familiar with the most famous copy, The Medici Venus, owned by the Florentines for many centuries.

Fast forward to 1610 when the Baroque era was in its infancy, and so was the career of Artemisia Gentileschi. If male artists quote other artists to show that they know what they’re doing, then female artists needed to do so twice as much, especially when the live in a ‘library’ like Rome. Gentileschi’s father took his young talented daughter all over Rome to see the famous frescoes, especially the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. In one of Gentileschi’s early works, Susanna and the Elders (1610), she quoted Michelangelo’s Expulsion by reversing Adam’s defensive gesture. Susanna was spied upon while bathing, and in the same way that Masaccio saw Eve in a sculpture of Venus, Gentileschi saw Susanna in Adam’s anguished objection to being expelled.

Don’t get me started on Susanna, but it was not her fault that those guys were spying on her and they deserved their punishment when the truth was finally discovered (Thanks Daniel). Same as with depictions of Eve, artists have spun Susanna’s story to make it look like she was far from innocent. This brings us full circle back to Eve, her ‘mistake’, and the notion that women can’t be trusted because they are temptresses who are just trying to lure you into big trouble.  Biblical stories of women were spun by artists to downplay the importance of the woman’s role in the story, and to draw attention to the horrible fate of man if he trusts a woman. Suckers.

Masaccio’s The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, 1426-7

Lorenzo Ghiberti’s The Expulsion, detail from the ‘Garden of Eden’ panel on the Gates of Paradise, Baptistry of St. John, Florence, 1425-52

Michelangelo’s “The Expulsion”, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City, 1508-12

Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, Schloss Weissenstein, Pommersfelden, 1610






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Next article: Cain and Abel

500 and counting …

Saturday, November 10th, 2012

In 2007, I began a website called Stories in ArtIt’s a a searchable database of paintings and sculptures that tell ancient stories, and I’ve been adding entries to my collection slowly but surely. Today, thanks to my parents, I added my 500th entry.

‘Stories in Art’ (which is not the nerdiest project I’ve ever done, but it comes close) started with a paper that I wrote in 2001, while I was studying art history in Florence. I wrote a paper comparing the themes of David and Goliath and Judith and Holofernes in Baroque painting (also not the nerdiest thing I’ve ever done). David and Judith were two biblical heroes who decapitated their enemies, against all odds, and saved their people. Depictions of these two heroes are endlessly fascinating and surprisingly common. Every time I went to a museum, I would notice another one, so I started a list.

When my parents came to visit me in Italy, I told them about the paper I was writing, and about the paintings I was studying. This started a very strange game that we’ve been playing ever since: keep an eye out for the decapitated heads in museums. My parents have been helping me collect images of heroic decapitators for eleven years, and they recently found yet another one.

Hans von Aachen’s Judith and Holofernes is my 500th entry in Stories in Art and my 115th Judith.

Please click here to explore Stories in Art,
and click here to read more about this project. 
Hans von Aachen
Judith and Holofernes
Middlebury College Museum of Art
Middlebury, Vermont