(b. ca. 1510, Antwerpen, d. 1575, Antwerpen)

Lot and His Daughters

Oil on oak, 148 x 204,5 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

The history of Lot is taken from Genesis (19. 1-38). When the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were about to be destroyed at God's order, angels came and warned Lot to flee with his family. Despite being warned not to, his wife looked back at the burning city of Sodom and was turned into a pillar of salt. Lot and his daughters then took refuge in a cave. Afraid of finding themselves alone on earth and without descendants, Lot's daughters decided to get their father drunk and to seduce him. This latter episode forms the main theme of the painting.

At the centre of the composition, the elder sister, half naked, is seated on the knees of the old man Lot. Alongside them, the younger sister gracefully proffers a cup of wine. To the left, Sodom is in flames, whilst the angels are helping Lot and his family to escape; to the right, Gomorrah also is in flames, and facing us, a little city has escaped the disaster. This is probably Zoar, where the family had first taken refuge.

Old Testament subjects, until then considered essentially as prefigurations of the New Testament, enjoyed an unprecedented success in the 16th century, in particular as the Reformation encouraged the direct reading of the Bible. In the moral literature of the time, the story of Lot and his daughters served primarily to illustrate the pernicious power of women and the disastrous consequences of drunkenness (according to the Bible, Lot was unaware of anything). The subject matter also furnished an example of unequally aged couples, a fashionable theme at the time. In the picture, the incestuous act is symbolised by the lizard, an impure animal, in the lower left-hand corner. Similarly, the fruit that the younger sister is carrying in her laps evokes desire. The slim, well-figured shapes of the young women, their milky-coloured skins and their languid gestures give off, however, a latent eroticism which is not unambiguous.

The work was undoubtedly intended for a private residence. Here Jan Massys reaches the peak of his art. The elegance of the poses and the pronounced taste for sophisticated jewellery and hairdresses reveal the influence of the Fontainebleau school where the artist possibly lived, after being banished from Antwerp (1544-55) under suspicion of sympathising with the Reform movement. The painter was to handle the theme two other times, in particular in paintings conserved at Vienna (dated 1563) and at Cognac.