The prospect of human extinction can drive people to desperate measures. The morally charged story of Lot and his daughters, recounted in Genesis 19, demonstrates just how far people will go to ensure the continuance of their lineage. The old, righteous Lot, one of Abraham’s nephews, lived in the doomed city of Sodom among its immoral citizenry. As a reward for his virtue, God spared Lot, along with his wife and two daughters, from Sodom’s destruction. During their flight, however, Lot’s wife defied God’s command and looked back. As punishment, she was turned into a pillar of salt. Lot eventually settled inside a cave with his daughters. The elder sister, convinced that there was “no man left on the earth” (Gen. 19:31), devised a scheme to intoxicate Lot, enabling the two women to sleep with the old man on consecutive nights in order to “preserve the seed of their father” (Gen. 19:32). These one-time acts of incest, however questionable, yielded results. Nine months later, the sisters bore the sons Moab and Ben-Ammi, founders of the Moabite and Ammonite tribes. From the Moabite tribe eventually emerged Ruth, who, according to some theologians, was the ancestress of Christ.1
Already in the Middle Ages, depictions of this biblical story served to moralize on the danger of female seduction and the unfavorable effects of alcohol.2 In 1530 Lucas van Leyden (ca. 1494–1533) added a blatantly erotic dimension to the scene by depicting Lot and his daughters as cavorting nudes (fig 1).3 His vastly influential composition—the three protagonists in the foreground against the backdrop of the burning city and Lot’s petrified wife in the distance—was adopted by many artists, including the Haarlem artist Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617) in his 1616 painting of Lot and His Daughters (fig 2).4 When Abraham Bloemaert executed this painting in 1624, he drew inspiration from both Van Leyden and Goltzius, but he also altered the narrative thrust of their scenes. Much as had his predecessors, Bloemaert placed the main figure group in the foreground, depicted the bed at the left, and relegated Lot’s wife and the burning city to the distant right. The position of Lot’s legs and the cylinder-like smoke plumes also derive from Goltzius’s example. Nevertheless, Bloemaert portrayed Lot and his daughters as mostly clothed and psychologically disconnected from one another, not as nudes engaging in a range of carnal pleasures.
In Bloemaert’s painting, the bearded Lot gazes broodingly at the ground before him, his right hand placed somewhat stiffly on his daughter’s bare shoulder, his left hand balancing a full tazza of wine on his knee. The patriarch is unreceptive to the advances of his youngest daughter, who has removed the top part of her dress, flung her pearl necklace and gold chain behind her on the bed, and placed her right hand on her father’s lap. He is equally unresponsive to his eldest daughter, who stands behind him while reaching over his shoulder to undo his robe with her left hand. His detached attitude is reinforced by the shadow cast over his eyes by his broad-brimmed hat.5 Thus, in Bloemaert’s rendering of the story, Lot is no longer portrayed as an active participant in the erotic character of the story, but rather as a disengaged participant.
Bloemaert’s interpretation of the story of Lot and his daughters is consistent with the approach he had taken earlier in the century in two drawings of the subject.6 The first, a roundel in a Dutch private collection, which Bloemaert executed around 1600–5, depicts Lot fully clothed and wearing a similar hat.7 The second, an anonymous copy after a lost drawing that Bloemaert probably executed around 1610–15 (fig 3), similarly depicts Lot as a disengaged participant.8 In each of these works Bloemaert remained faithful to the Old Testament story, which explicitly recounts that, in both instances, Lot was unaware when his daughter “lay down, nor when she rose up” (Gen 19:33). As a practicing Catholic, Bloemaert would have been aware of how Lot was described in the New Testament and in biblical exegesis. In 2 Peter 2:7, Lot is referred to as a “righteous man,” and in Luke 17:28–30, Christ uses Lot as an example of a virtuous man who was saved by God. Later theologians such as Erasmus and Calvin did not condone the inappropriate seduction, but they did not fully condemn it either: they understood that Lot was not consciously aware of the act and that the daughters were trying to save humankind from extinction.9
A striking feature in Bloemaert’s rendition is the sumptuous still life spread out on a stone table partially covered by a plain white damask tablecloth. It consists of apples and grapes in a Wan-li porcelain bowl, half a bread loaf stacked on top of an old Gouda cheese, a pewter dish with oysters, and a knife balancing precariously on the edge of the table. These objects and motifs are typical of early seventeenth-century still-life painting. Some of them—the bread, grapes, and cheese in particular—appear frequently in depictions of Lot and His Daughters, including in Goltzius’s version.10 Standing before the table is a large, ornate, gilded ewer and on it a covered goblet. Bloemaert probably based these vessels on actual prototypes, possibly by the Utrecht silversmith family Van Vianen.11 The rarity of still lifes in Bloemaert’s oeuvre suggests that he intended this still life as a commentary on the complex moral and ethical issues surrounding this biblical narrative.
A prominent element of this still life is the plate of oysters—aphrodisiacs that allude to the imminent sexual consummation planned by Lot’s daughters. Discarded shells of consumed oysters lying on the ground in the shadow of the elder sister’s dress further indicate the sexual implications of the story. Nevertheless, also prominently displayed in this still life are bread and wine, fundamental elements of the Eucharist. Anne Lowenthal argued that the prominence of such Christological symbols in depictions of Lot and His Daughters presents the moral dilemma of this story to the viewer. They serve as reminders that Lot was a sinner, redeemed by Christ, but also that he was also an archetypal prototype for Christ.12
In most depictions of this scene, including Van Leyden’s and Goltzius’s versions, one of the sisters is shown pouring the wine into Lot’s cup, a motif that echoes this ambiguity. While the pouring of wine is traditionally associated with the virtue of Temperance, in this context is also points to Lot’s drunkenness and intemperance. The bread is usually depicted untouched, possibly suggesting that Lot and his daughters have neglected the most basic nourishment, Christ’s body.13 Bloemaert chose a different approach. While he included oysters to emphasize the sexual character of the scene, he did not emphasize Lot’s drunkenness by having one of his daughters pour wine into his cup. Instead, Lot solemnly holds his tazza made of gold, the color of Christ’s kingship, much as a priest would do during the celebration of the Eucharist.14 The half a loaf of bread in the still life alludes to participation in the other central element of the Eucharist—the body of Christ. The red admiral butterfly hovering above the still life also has Christological implications, for it refers symbolically to the resurrection of the soul.15
The painting’s correct attribution has long been obscured. Around the beginning of the twentieth century it was attributed to Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) on the basis of a false signature applied in the nineteenth century.16 Throughout most of the twentieth century it was ascribed to Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678) and, when it was sold in 2004, it was attributed to Abraham Bloemaert’s son Hendrick (1601/2–72).17 With the discovery of Abraham Bloemaert’s signature and date during the painting’s restoration in 2004, it became possible to identify this work as the “grand gallery picture” auctioned on 14 February 1811 in London, which, according to the sale catalogue, had belonged to King Charles II of England (1630–85).18 Lot and His Daughters corresponds stylistically to the two other paintings by Bloemaert dated 1624: Parable of the Wheat and the Tares at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and Adoration of the Magi in the Centraal Museum, Utrecht (fig 4).19 The Utrecht painting is especially similar in the bright, primary colors of the monumental foreground figures, the pastel palette in the background, and the inclusion of gilded goblets which are, just as in Lot and His Daughters, reminders of Christ’s kingship.