The two images shown here, the woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)1 and the oil painting of Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1843 and 1857),2 both depict Lot's flight from Sedom as recounted in Bereshit 19:12-26. While the two works portray the same moment in the story, their differing depictions make one question several points in the narrative, including the punishment of Lot's wife, the nature of the angels, and the fate of the city itself.
The illustration in the Nuremberg Chronicle is colored in soft pinks and blues, giving it a light mood that belies the somber situation being depicted. On the left of the woodcut stands the crumbling city, its colorful towers falling amidst flames that look more like petals than fire. In the center, Lot's wife has been transformed into a pillar of salt. Her head peeps out of the cylinder, lending a comical rather than tragic character to her fate. A few steps to her right, a winged angel leads Lot and his daughters away from the destroyed city. All the figures are dressed in silken cloaks and are walking calmly, as if utterly unaware of the destruction unfolding behind them.
In contrast to the image in the Nuremberg Chronicle, Corot's painting is rendered using a dark palette, capturing the intense mood of its subjects. In the foreground, a female figure3 guides Lot and his daughters away from the burning city. One senses both their urgency and despondency as they run barefoot, heads bowed and dressed in black. Behind them is an unidentified structure resembling a huge tomb, while to the right stands a silhouetted figure, Lot's wife. She has turned to pay her last respects to her city. At the top of the painting, in a smoke-filled sky tinted by raging orange-red fires, an angel hovers and wreaks destruction.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
Corot's smoke-filled sky suggests that the city below was consumed by fire. Although the illustration in the Chronicle similarly depicts flames, its main focus is, instead, on the toppling houses. What happened to Sedom? 19:25 reads, "וַה' הִמְטִיר עַל סְדֹם וְעַל עֲמֹרָה גָּפְרִית וָאֵשׁ מֵאֵת ה' מִן הַשָּׁמָיִם", but immediately afterwards we are told, "וַיַּהֲפֹךְ אֶת הֶעָרִים". What is the relationship between the "fire and brimstone" and the "overturning of the city"? Was a miraculous heavenly fire rained down from the sky or was the city destroyed via a more natural disaster such as an earthquake or volcanic eruption? See Destruction of Sedom and Miracles and Nature.
Angels or Humans?
In the Chronicle, the character accompanying Lot and his family is clearly drawn as an angel. In Corot's painting, though, the figure guiding Lot appears human.4 Was Lot led by an angel or a human? This depends on whether the word "מַלְאָכִים" in the chapter refers to celestial beings or simply to messengers.5 It should also be noted that the characters are referred to as "מַלְאָכִים" only twice in the entire story,6 while in most verses they are instead called "אֲנָשִׁים".7 For more, see Avraham's Guests – Angels or Men?
How Many Saviors?
In the Chronicle only one savior accompanies Lot, whereas in Corot's painting two messengers appear, with one destroying the city and the other guiding Lot to safety. Does Tanakh delineate specific roles for the various angels? How many participate in the saving of Lot?8 The Biblical narrative leaves these questions unanswered. Throughout most of Chapter 19 (including the section about leading Lot out of the city) the angels are referred to in the plural, suggesting that they are acting as a pair. In the conversation about destroying the city (verses 21-22), though, one of the angels speaks in the singular as if he is solely responsible for that task.9
The illustrator of the Chronicle highlights how Lot's wife was miraculously tranformed into a cartoon like pillar of salt. However, Corot leaves her fate more ambiguous, as her still figure might simply be staring at the destroyed city or could be a person-turned-pillar. What does the Biblical text have to say about her fortune? The verses, like Corot, are unclear. Although most readers assume that the phrase "וַתְּהִי נְצִיב מֶלַח" refers to Lot's wife, it is possible that the referent of the clause is actually the land itself.10 Moreover, even if the words refer to Lot's wife, they may describe a natural rather than a supernatural punishment. See R. Yosef Bekhor Shor who suggests that the extra minutes wasted in looking back at Sedom resulted in Mrs. Lot getting caught in the firestorm of brimstone and salt11 which rained down on Sedom.12 For elaboration, see Lot's Wife.