One of the reasons I love studying artists’ renderings of biblical traditions is the way that, sometimes, their portrayals can invite the viewer to look at the biblical story in new ways. A fascinating example of this is the painting by Philip Hermogenes Calderon, titled ‘Ruth and Naomi’. This image is the subject of much discussion, given its hugely ambiguous depiction of the relational dynamic going on between Ruth and Naomi (the two embracing figures). In many other artistic depictions of this biblical duo, Naomi is usually portrayed as a haggard and exhausted elderly woman, consoled by a much younger, more nubile Ruth. Here, however, the figure of Naomi appears fairly young – not to mention distinctly masculine, or at least androgynous in appearance. Moreover, there is something distinctly passionate about the nature of their embrace here – like a scene from a 1930s Hollywood romance, Ruth clings onto her mother-in-law, as a frisson of unspoken desire runs through their mutual gaze. Nothing else matters, no one else exists – we have to feel a bit sorry for poor Orpah here, standing on our right, so distanced from the other pair, so utterly excluded within this tableau.
While some scholars have attempted to ‘dampen down’ any potential ardour between the two women in this image, by suggesting that the grey-clad figure is Boaz rather than Naomi, this makes little sense given the painting clearly represents the scene from Ruth 1, when Naomi attempts to part ways with her daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah. No, I’d rather leave these two women standing here unambiguously enjoying an embrace that – in some sense – celebrates and witnesses to the intense love that they share with each other, a love that Ruth gives voice to with such eloquence during this very scene:
“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Wherever you go, I will go;
wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Wherever you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!” (Ruth 1:16-17)