A rock star in his day, 17th century painter Peter Paul Rubens never wanted for work. Known as “the prince of painters and the painter of princes," he served both royalty and the church, and his paintings seldom changed hands. This makes his “Lot and Daughters,” heading for the auction block at Christie's London in July, a big get. Before the sale, the auction house will show off the painting in Christie’s, New York in April and in Hong Kong in May. Exulting on Christie’s website, deputy chair of Old Masters Paul Raison said, “We feel incredibly privileged to be offering this masterpiece” - a painting he sees as “pulsating with life.


Committing incest in the name of humanity

The “pulsating” part has to do with the way Rubens tells the Bible story. Scripture says that escaping Sodom’s destruction led Lots’ daughters to believe they and their father were the only people left on earth. Wanting to re-populate the world, they plied their father with wine and slept with him. Rubens describes the father’s first bed partner in the nude, not only baring her flesh, but also rouging it up for a rapturous, if not raunchy air. All of which gives the impression that the daughters were vixens, not the virginal innocents that they were.

Juicing reality with a sex scene

He had his reasons, of course. His employer, a Catholic Church bent on pushing back on the Counter Reformation, tasked him with punching up the realism in paintings of Bible stories -- the main source of biblical education for a population that couldn‘t read. And as every ad man knows, sex sells.

Christie’s seemed to tout the carnality when deputy chair Raison crowed, “The impact of this painting in the flesh is overwhelming.” Likely impacted, as well, were those who once owned the painting, including Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I.


Taking a hard line on wrong-headedness

But here’s the thing. The rendition of the Biblical tale by Rubens, who history describes as devoutly religious, indicates a harsher view of Lot’s daughters than a rendition of the same story by a devout participant in the Protestant Reformation, Lucas Cranach the Elder, who kept his figures modestly clothed and chaste-looking.   

Evidence of Rubens’ stinging take on Lot’s daughters can be seen again in another painting on the same subject, titled “Departure of Lot and his Family from Sodom.” In this case, Rubens showed one of the daughters sneaking golden candlesticks under her dress on the way out of town.

Describing this behavior, Ringling Museum, the painting’s keeper, says on its website.

“These actions might be seen as an indication of the daughters' wayward inclinations, which were to culminate in their incestuous relationship with their father.”

Abusing the privilege

Talk about poetic license, Rubens not only ignored motivations in the Old Testament story, he also concocted his own about underhandedness that never happened. Interpreting a Bible story is one thing, inventing a new one in the Bible’s name is chutzpah.