Until one examines the Book of Ruth – which is read on the holiday of Shavuot – artistically and mines the text for visual fodder that would lend itself to dynamic subjects to paint, one is unlikely to realize how passive the book actually is. The overwhelming majority of action verbs have to do with speech, and there is virtually no violence or conflict. Save a spitting in a shoe here or uncovering an ankle there, the book is much more about states of mind and identity than it is about action.
In the central moment of the book, Ruth, in a grand act of self-negation and concession, declares to her mother-in-law Naomi, “Your nation is my nation, and your God is my God” (1:16). So determined is Ruth’s statement that Naomi, who has just seen her other daughter-in-law, Orpah, depart (1:14), knows that the former means business and doesn’t try to send her away anymore. In just a matter of verses, the book tells of Ruth’s intense decision to stay with Naomi, even though her own husband had passed away.
Just about the only other thing Ruth does in the book is to gather grain in Boaz’s field, another action of hers that represents obedience to Naomi’s charge or at least a decision she ran by Naomi before going out on her own.
The artistic tradition “Ruth Gleaning” has largely cast David’s forebear in a vulnerable position, reflecting artists’ interpretation of her character as a weak and passive woman. (It evokes the artistic tradition of “Esther Swooning” or “Esther Fainting” before Ahasuerus, though she is surely a courageous woman putting her life on the line, and the Book of Esther offers no indication that she swooned or fainted.)
Almost invariably, when artists represented the motif “Ruth Gleaning,” they presented her kneeling or bowing in the fields, often before Boaz.
The following is a partial list of representations of Ruth kneeling in the fields: “Ruth threshing: Naomi counseling Ruth; Ruth at the feet of Boaz” in the Macejowski Bible (c. 1250); Ruth Gleaning in Marco dell’Avogadro’s Bible of Borso d’Este (15th century); Ruth Thanks Boaz for Letting Her Glean His Fields in an engraving by Philips Galle (1560-70); Ruth Gleaning Grain in the Field of Boaz, an engraving by Hendrik Goltzius (1580); Rembrandt’s pen and wash drawing, Boaz Meeting Ruth in His Fields (c.1648-9); Nicolas Poussin’s Summer (Ruth and Boaz) (1660-64); Michelangelo Marullo’s 17th century drawing Ruth and Boaz; Johann Ulrich Kraus’ 1705 illustration Boaz meets Ruth gleaning in his fields, and Boaz taking Ruth to wife; Marco Ricci’s 1715 Landscape with Boaz and Ruth; and Randolph Rogers’ sculpture “Ruth Gleaning” (1853-1860).
Southern German Mahzor. “Ruth and Boaz (text for Shavuot).”
First quarter of the 14th century. British Library.
In Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’ 1879 drawing “Ruth and Boaz,” which was created for a window in All Hallows Church in Allerton, Liverpool, and is in the collection of the Tate, the kneeling Ruth lifts grain off of Boaz’s shoe, perhaps foreshadowing the shoe removal ritual that will later make her Boaz’s wife. One gets the impression that Burne-Jones’ vision is that Ruth was gleaning and lifted some wheat up to reveal a foot. The drawing reflects the camera angle as it pans up revealing the owner of the foot.
In other works, Ruth bends over or bows, as in the initial R and story of Ruth in the 12th century illuminated Lambeth Bible, a 1550 etching by Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert (after Maarten van Heemskerck) The Story of Ruth and Boaz, and Simone Pignoni’s c. 1650 Ruth and Boaz.
However helplessly Ruth is portrayed when she is a woman encountering Boaz the man, Ruth is given equal treatment when she is in the company of just Naomi or Orpah. In two 13th century bibles, Bible Moralisée and a bible made in Bologna, and Rembrandt’s Ruth and Naomi on Way to Bethlehem (c. 1648-49), Ruth stands firmly beside Naomi. Ruth and Naomi are also equals in the illumination Ruth and Naomi on their way to Bethlehem from the Aurifaber Workshop, dated around 1275 to 1300.
Ruth, centrally located and standing before her mother-in-law in “Ruth and Naomi”
by a follower of Jan van Scorel. C. 1525-60. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.
In Jacob Jordaens’ c. 1641-42 Ruth and Naomi, Ruth sits comfortably in front of her mother-in-law, while she peeks out from behind the grain in Boaz’s field in Niklas Stoer’s c. 1562-63 woodcut “Ruth and Boaz in the Wheat Field” and in Antonio Tempesta’s (1555-1630) “Ruth and Boaz in the Wheat Field.”
Jean François Millet. “Harvesters Resting (Ruth and Boaz).” 1850-53.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
But there are artistic depictions of Ruth that come from more of a feminist perspective. In Jean François Millet’s 1850-53 painting Harvesters, a man in trousers and a vest (perhaps Boaz?) presents Ruth to a group of nearly a dozen resting laborers. Ruth wears a shawl, and modestly (or shyly) looks at her feet. A lamb (surely symbolic of innocence) follows Ruth as she is led to the group. Although Ruth is an outsider, she is presented as a real person rather than a caricature. However awkward the first meeting is, Ruth is not frozen in a servile position.
Archie Rand. “Ruth (For Kitaj).” Acrylic on fabric. 2002.
Archie Rand may have paid Ruth the best compliment in his Ruth (For Kitaj), in which Ruth, wearing a purple backpack (for gathering wheat of course!), is pursued by Boaz, who tells her, “Did you hear, my daughter? Don’t go glean in anyone else’s field.”
Ruth’s expression makes it seem like she’s considering Boaz’s offer. Of course, Rand has abstracted the story. There is no wheat. There are backpacks, trousers and contemporary attire. But Rand latches onto an essential aspect of the story of Ruth and Boaz – Ruth’s allure. Ruth definitely pursued Boaz, and even let herself into his private threshing room at night and uncovered his feet. But Boaz must have been struck by Ruth when he first saw her in his fields or else he wouldn’t have condescended to introduce himself.
Whereas Ruth had been depicted as helpless through centuries of art history, Millet, Rand and others liberated Ruth and sought to present her perspective. Richard McBee’s 2001 painting Ruth and Boaz achieves a similar balance, as a Chassidic-looking Boaz confronts Ruth, who looks away. Boaz has an intense gaze, but McBee, by offering viewers a glimpse of Ruth’s inner turmoil, reveals her to be the more interesting character.
Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.