I was flipping through an art book called Great Women of the Bible when this picture of Lot and his daughters stopped me. It’s a full-page color reproduction, and the contrast of light and dark—the daughters’ dappled, gleaming flesh in the foreground; the deeply shadowed, grim-faced Lot, only a head really, half-enclosed in shadow behind them, peering out of the gloom of the cave just before he impregnates them—was stunning.
By then I’d already read and considered the story as it’s told in Genesis, and I’d found it wanting in the patriarchal way that I’d also found Dinah’s story wanting—wanting another reading, a different approach that might somehow be more convincing. And now here was an image I could relate to, because it told this part of that story differently, or at least allowed me to see it differently from the way the Bible told it.
What this picture conveyed, to my eyes at least, was precursor to rape, exuding a father’s dark intent, his daughters’ imploring, futile resistance, their arms raised up, their naked flesh exposed, the draped cloth so transparent over one’s flanks it doesn’t cover her at all. And then Lot’s head, just that head, reduced, or amplified, into the great Patriarchal head of a monotheistic god looking down on them, on all of us, that disembodied head that watches: the supremely ruthless gaze.
And what about the flask the daughter on the left holds by her side, and the bowl, dimly shown, held out to Lot? It’s the wine she’s offering, as described in the Bible. But is this the daughters’ ploy to make their father drunk, to undo his will, to “let us lie with him” as the Bible explains? Are we to believe that classic excuse as Lot would have told it: “I was drunk and they made me do it!” Or can we see this act as part of the daughters’ desperate supplication? “Please, Father, have some wine!” Please, Father, leave us alone! Please, Father, just fall asleep!
I was impressed. And I wondered who was this Francesco Furini, ca 1600-1646—as the caption informed, who painted so sympathetic-seeming a depiction of the impregnation of Lot’s daughters. Because if I’d ever learned about him, I’d forgotten.
Scrolling around a bit online, I learned he came from Florence and that he might well have been influenced by Caravaggio—as the play of shadow and light in this painting suggests. That he was condemned by some for his glorification of human flesh and valorized for it by Robert Browning in his “Parleying with Certain People of Importance in their Day.”
I even hunted down and read a chunk of Browning’s long (one might say long-winded) poem in which he praises Furini for his humanist art:
Poured forth by pencil, —man and woman mere,
Glorified till half owned for gods, —the dear
Fleshly perfection of the human shape….
And for what sounds like premature feminism:
Dreadful distinction, at soul-safety’s price,
By also painting women — (why the need?)
And for the vigor of the epithets Furini slung at his moralizing critics, with Baldinucci—the effete Florentine art critic patronized by the Medici—his prime target. Browning even embeds these epithets in his poem, crediting them as direct quotes from Furini:
Did you but know, as I
—O scruple-splitting sickly-sensitive
Mild-moral-monger, what that agony
Of Art is….
Yes, Furini sounded like my kind of guy.
But then there was the question: Had Furini finally succumbed, been worn down into a guilt-ridden old age by his critics? I’d read that he’d become a parish priest in his 40s, and the lore was that on his deathbed he’d begged his friends to buy and burn all his paintings that paid homage to the beauty of human flesh—although this was something Browning vigorously dismisses.
In any case, Furini was an artist I was glad to have met.
But back, then, to the story of Lot and his daughters, or first to the caption, which I’d noticed and not liked, in the Great Women of the Bible: “Here [Furini] shows Lot’s daughters appealing to their father with the beauty of their nude bodies.” How wrong it seemed—not at all what I saw. And why, even in a contemporary book about the “great women” of the Bible, was the story the same old, unconvincing one that made these girls schemers, seducing their father into raping them? Appealing? Yes, they certainly are. But are they appealing him to join them in incest? Or is he noticing their appeal and acting on it against their supplications? Which makes more sense?
Common sense and all the statistical evidence on incest and child abuse persuade me in the direction of rape. And then if you go back and read this part of Lot’s story in the aftermath of what comes just before, the Biblical version of the impregnation of his daughters seems even more unlikely. This, after all, is the father who, when the Sodomites knock on his door, immediately offers up these same two virgin daughters in lieu of sending the strangers staying with him out. “Look,” he says, “I have two daughters who have known no man. Let me bring them out to you and do to them whatever you want” (Genesis, 19: 8).
Do to them whatever you want.
Isn’t it fair to ask: Is this a man who shows great scruples when it comes to his female kin? Who values them? Who respects and protects them? Or is he someone who might do to them whatever he wants? So, then, why should we take his word against his daughters—and who else would have been present in that cave outside of Zoar to say what really happened? And why should we imagine that these two daughters who are never given names—identified only as their father’s seducers—would have held sway against him if they’d told the truth of his rape?
So, whether Furini meant to or not, his painting allowed me to see what he depicted not as the caption told me to, but in a way that made far more sense. Here was a story distilled down in the darkness of that cave to Lot’s looming face and his daughters’ imploring, naked bodies: the story of incest as it most likely—certainly most often—goes. And so whether he meant to or not, Furini confirmed for me the right to let my Dinah tell her story the way she does.