Danger and Desire: Student Work on the Book of Ruth (part 1)

In a previous blog post, I indicated that I would be sharing student work from our course Danger and Desire: The Bible in Visual Culture. Today, I’d like to present the first of two student essays that look at images based on the Hebrew Bible’s book of Ruth. The author of this essay is Kesaia Tapueluelu, one of our star students taking her Bachelor of Theology here at the University of Auckland. Kesaia focuses on two artists who present scenes from Ruth, considering in particular the way that the gender and sexuality of the characters in this narrative are explored within these visual interpretations of the text.

Ruth and Naomi

by

Kesaia Tapueluelu

Every time I would read or have the story of Ruth read to me, I always thought about how Naomi must have been the best mother-in-law for Ruth not to leave her. The mother and daughter in-law duo tells an intriguing story of the journey that they embark on in order to survive their tragic circumstances. Loyalty is a recurring theme in this biblical text which highlights a personality trait of Ruth; however, any loyalty from Naomi is not clearly evident. For this essay I have chosen two pieces of art that I believe highlight the relationship between the women (especially the aspect of love and loyalty) and the roles that they played throughout their story for their survival; Philip Hermogenes Calderon’s Ruth and Naomi painting and Nicolas Poussin’s Summer (Ruth and Boaz). Both art works will offer a depiction of Naomi and Ruth’s relationship and further allow for an interpretation of the biblical story.

Philip_Calderon_Ruth_Naomi
Philip Hermogenes Calderon, Ruth and Naomi (1920)

In the cultural context of the time in which the book was authored women who were widowed held the lowest socio-economic status. They had nothing and could not get anything because all odds were against them because there was no male figure present to look after them. Philip Hermogenes Calderon’s Ruth and Naomi offer a visual interpretation of the text that raises many questions on first glance: who are the two embracing, Ruth and Naomi, or Ruth and Boaz? Might it be romantic or even erotic? (Exum, 1996, 129) What is Calderon suggesting with this picture? The picture is not clear about who are embracing, whether it is Boaz and Ruth or Ruth and Naomi. A clue in Calderon’s painting is the presence of the third character looking on from the two embracing. To unravel an understanding of this piece we need to comparae the biblical text to the painting to give possible clarity. When we apply a scene which includes a third party there are two possibilities. The first possibility is that this scene could be an embrace between Ruth and Boaz with Naomi looking on and the second possibility is that the two embracing are Ruth and Naomi and Orpah is the one looking on. The biblical text shows no evidence of Ruth and Boaz embracing where Naomi is present; as a matter fact, there is no scene in which all three characters are together at the same time. The second possibility is more favourable because the third character is carrying some form of luggage which suggests traveling. (Koosed 2011, 53). This then suggests that the scene is a depiction of when Naomi told her daughters-in-law to return to their homes (Ruth 1.8-14). In the biblical text it is noted that Ruth clings onto Naomi as Orpah leaves (1.14), this is probably the moment that Calderon is trying to capture in his painting, which depicts his interpretation of the biblical story. Yet, the picture is ambivalent, obscure and very confusing. Naomi is masculine looking and the embrace between her and Ruth is very passionate, romantic and even erotic. J. Cheryl Exum wrote about this painting, asking the question, is this really Naomi? (1996, 129). Exum’s question echoes the questions from those posed by the women in Bethlehem when they could not recognise Naomi (Ruth 1:19). This question can play on the idea Calderon may have wanted his audience to question in the picture; the questions about gender and his use of an androgynous figure (ibid, 132). Calderon’s painting can be seen as the artist’s way of delegating, in this sense, the male responsibilities of the relationship onto Naomi and by doing so he blurs a definitive gender on Naomi. The role in which Naomi takes on is the role of carer and provider for Ruth – the masculine role, hence her androgyny. Calderon was a part of a group called the St Johns Wood Clique (a group of Victorian artists) and he specialised in romantic and dramatic scenes from the Bible (Elkan). It is also said that Calderon’s paintings were never straightforward and many were sexually ambivalent. This is very fitting considering the romantic gesture that is portrayed in Naomi and Ruth’s embrace. In a blog post by Caroline Blyth on Auckland Theology and Religious Studies (19 December 2014), she writes about her thoughts on this piece, and her concluding thoughts are what interested me. Blyth states that rather than dampening the picture by stating that Ruth is embracing Boaz, she would rather leave the two women unambiguously enjoying their embrace, which in turn celebrates their intense love for each other; Blyth then concludes by quoting Ruth’s remarks to Naomi (Ruth 1.16-17). When Blyth concluded with Ruth’s remarks it evoked a sense of marriage vows, highlighting the intensity of love that she mentions. Maybe it is this great love that Calderon is trying to express through his painting, an intense love where Ruth vows loyalty to Naomi like the vows of a marriage. To further clarify, I do not believe Calderon’s picture highlights a bond of homosexuality nor of heterosexuality; however it is about the intense love that both characters mutually express as seen in his picture (Exum 1996, 135).

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Nicholas Poussin, The Summer (Ruth and Boaz), 1664

The second piece of art that amply applies a stimulating depiction of the biblical text is from Nicolas Poussin, Summer (Ruth and Boaz). The beauty in this art is seen in the vast landscape of the outdoors. It is said that the landscape is a depiction of the divine presence amongst human activity (Encyclopedia of Art). Poussin may have painted this scene to imply the presence of God as the conductor of both Ruth’s life and the events that are going to happen. This picture shows Ruth kneeling before Boaz amongst the field of workers. What is intriguing about this picture is that it shows Ruth as a rather masculine figure. Is Poussin trying to implement the same or a similar idea to Calderon? Although Poussin’s picture of Ruth and Boaz was painted before Calderon’s painting of Ruth and Naomi, the masculinity that Ruth takes on may also denote here an aspect of her role in her relationship with Naomi. In this scene, Ruth seems to take from Naomi the masculine role and places it on herself to care for Naomi; by doing so she goes to the fields to glean after the harvesters to provide food for both of them. In the words of Boaz (when he replies to Ruth about his favouritism on her), “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband” (2.11a). These words, specifically “what you have done,” highlight the care for Naomi implying Ruth’s responsibility towards Naomi. Although I have mentioned earlier that Naomi took on the masculine role in the relationship in her initial care of Ruth, it is here in this scene that Ruth takes on this role in place of Naomi. Depicting Ruth as a masculine figure before Boaz in this painting suggests that Ruth came before Boaz in her role as carer and provider. Then further in the biblical story, Boaz takes this role in the relationship from Ruth by making her his wife. It is then that Boaz becomes the ultimate carer for both women, taking from them the role as provider. The women’s search for survival is now over in Ruth’s acceptance to be the bride of Boaz; the women then rest in Boaz’s care. In conclusion, Calderon’s painting depicted the intense love that both Naomi and Ruth portrayed as women. The androgyny in the picture allowed for different and various interpretations of the figures embracing. Poussin seems to have done the same in his painting of Ruth before Boaz, depicting Ruth as a rather masculine figure. Both images describe the loyalty and the love that Naomi and Ruth have. Their relationship as widowed mother and daughter in-law describes a prolonged journey for survival as women with nothing. Boaz’s entry into the story cast him as the refuge through which these women were saved. These women struggled alone (or perhaps with the implicit providence of God) through a journey that ended with a beautiful outcome; a famous lineage (Ruth 4.18-22). The relationship between Ruth and Naomi as depicted by these artists offer an understanding of the biblical story that is both challenging and stimulating. Bibliography Blyth, Caroline. “Advent offering 19 December.” Auckland Theology and Religious Studies, Accessed April 26, 2015. https://aucklandtheology.wordpress.com/tag/philip-hermogenes-calderon/. Elkan, Jenny. “Philip Hermogenes Calderon 1833-1898: Artist Biography.” TATE Accessed April 26, 2015. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/philip-hermogenes-calderon-77. Exum, J. Cheryl. Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996. Koosed, Jennifer. Gleaning Ruth: A Biblical Heroine and her Afterlives. University of South Carolina Press, 2011. I’ll be back in a day or two with the second student work on visual exegesis in the book of Ruth.

Advent offering 19 December

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.

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Philip Hermogenes Calderon, Ruth and Naomi (1920)

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)