Lot and his daughters: Fire, brimstone, incest and Sodom.

You could say that Lot and his daughters had their ups and downs. Their story is told in Genesis 19:30-38.  It’s a morally murky story.

There is debate amongst archaeologists over whether Sodom and Gomorrah actually existed but  we know that Lot was  the nephew of Abraham. According to the Bible, Jesus is a descendant of Lot through David’s great-grandmother Ruth, who is descended from Moab, Lot’s son through one of his daughters and that Christians, Jews and Muslims revere Lot as a righteous man of God.

Yet the accounts of Lot and his daughters contains some moral conundrums by today’s standards. While he was an inhabitant of Sodom, Lot was visited by three angels who warned him of the city’s impending destruction. While the angels were in Lot’s house, the local inhabitants gathered outside wishing to give the visitors a jolly old sodomite welcome.

Heinrich Aldegrever, Lot Protecting the Angels from the Inhabitants of Sodom
Heinrich Aldegrever, Lot Protecting the Angels from the Inhabitants of Sodom

To deter them, Lot offered them instead his two virgin daughters.  The angels would have none of this and came out and struck all the sodomites blind. The angels warned Lot that Sodom was about to be destroyed and that he and his wife and daughters should flee the city.

Paolo Veronese. Lot flees Sodom
Paolo Veronese. Lot flees Sodom

Later, after Sodom and Gomorrah had been destroyed and Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt (for looking back and presumably yearning for the life of sodom.), Lot and his daughters lived in a cave. His daughters, who feared that no man would marry them, decided to seduce their father to ensure the continuation of the family line. Which they did.

The plan, which was successful, was to get him so drunk that he he couldn’t remember what he was doing and then have sex with him. They did this over two successive nights, one night per daughter.

The King James Bible version is clear about who is doing what to whom:

And they made their father drink wine that night: and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose. (Genesis 19:33)

The old bloke was so pissed that he can’t remember what he was doing. ”

I was drunk at the time, m’lud.”

“Not guilty then”

The depictions of this incident, particularly in Renaissance and Baroque art, vary in the way in which the artists portray the involvement of Lot in the incest. In some, he is portrayed as very drunk and presumably not responsible for his actions. In others however, he is portrayed is an active and willing participant. It’s an interesting commentary on the extent to which the women are seen as the instigators and perpetrators of the incest.

It’s rather like the temptation of Adam by Eve.

eve Eve the archetypal temptress: Tintoretto, Molinari, Michelangelo, Macchetti and Mabuse

These paintings depict Eve in a way that had shaped perceptions of women for two millennia.

Lot and his  daughters have received considerable attention from artists, particularly during the Renaissance period when depicting a biblical story was a good excuse for including lashings of female nudity in your paintings. Artists have given different portrayals of Lot’s participation in this incestuous act.  Most go with the biblical version.

Gregorio de Ferrari: Lot and his Daughters
Gregorio de Ferrari: Lot and his Daughters

Gregorio de Ferrari paints Lot, clearly stupefied and half asleep, on the lap of one of his two amazonian daughters who are engaged in what appears to be a quite dispassionate discussion about what is going to happen next.

This is a beautifully structured painting dominated by the upper torsos of Lot’s two daughters. The flesh tones of their powerful bodies link them to the prostrate figure of their father and the beautiful gold of the dress provides a counter-balance to the three bodies.

You can imagine the conversation.The daughter in the centre who was nursing her father  and who has an encouraging arm around his sister is saying to her, “Well, he’s all yours now.”

Rottmayr von Rosenbrunn’s Lot is similar.  While one of his daughters pours Lot more wine, the other seems to be testing if there is still a pulse. Presumably there was.

Johann M Rottmayr von rosenbrunn Lot and his Daughters
Johann M Rottmayr von rosenbrunn Lot and his Daughters

Adriaen Van Der Werff’s Lot also appears oblivious to what is going on. The depiction is markedly different from von Rosenbrunn’s where there is exquisite detail of the torsos of Lot and his daughter. In Van Der Werff’s work that detail is missing and the bodies have a much smoother texture.  It makes the painting somehow more abstract and the figures in it rather more idealised than the very human portrayal by Rosenbrunn.

 Lot and his Daughters by Adriaen Van Der Werff

Lot and his Daughters by Adriaen Van Der Werff

We are told the scriptures that God regarded Lot as a good man notwithstanding his incest with his daughters. His drunken state and his lack of knowledge of the act implies that he was not willing participant. But not all artists took this view.

Federico Cervelli’s painting is dominated by the etherial and  languorous nude in the foreground.  In this touching family portrait, it is quite clear that Loft is an active and willing participant in the so-called seduction.

Federico Cervelli Lot and His Daughters
Federico Cervelli Lot and His Daughters

The figures are idealised and the detail suppressed in much in the same way as in the Van Der Werff painting.  It’s a gorgeous rendition of the subject yet glamorising it in a way that is puzzling to the modern sensibility. The same is true of Orazio Gentileschi’s version which steps up the erotic energy of even the Cervelli  painting.

Lot and His Daughters - Orazio Gentileschi
Lot and His Daughters – Orazio Gentileschi

Joachim Woetwel’s daughters have wonderful silver toning to their bodies which are portrayed in exquisite detail. The old bloke is already going the grope in a scene that has a wonderful decadent and luxurious sense about it: all that cheese and wine and melons and cucumbers.

Joachim Woetwel: Lot and His Daughters
Joachim Woetwel: Lot and His Daughters

Another painting by Woetwel of the same subject has a similarly iridescent and erotic nude as its focus and the tangled the limbs of the two central figures indicate that Lot was certainly conscious in the early stages of the seduction.

1630_Wtewael_Lot_and_His_Daughters_anagoria

Woetwel’s third painting of the subject is an even more luxurious and extravagant depiction. They certainly knew how to decorate a cave, this family.

Lot and his Daughters - Joachim WtewaelIn this painting the naked figures of the two daughters draw the viewer’s eye to Lot was holding the a goblet of wine. In the background, the city of  Sodom is burning. Is this a premonition of the hellfire that Lot and his daughters will one day face?

Most of the paintings of this  subject celebrate the of eroticism and sensuality of the situation. Is portrayed in luxurious and extravagant detail. There is no sense in any of the figures in the paintings of guilt or impending punishment as is so common in many of the paintings of Adam and Eve.

What are we to make of this body of work looking back from the 21st-century?

Almost all of the paintings, many of them masterpieces, appear to be a celebration of the sensual joys of incest.  Perhaps it is wrong to expect that the artist, given the opportunity to draw on a story (biblical no less) with such enormous erotic potential, to stop and consider some of the minor details of the back story.

2 thoughts on “Lot and his daughters: Fire, brimstone, incest and Sodom.

  1. In old testament only immoral sex was forbidden. Immoral — it means antisocial, linked with criminal activity. If sex was harmless and useful, it wasn`t forbidden at all.

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