This painting portrays a scene from one of the only stories in the Old Testament to focus on the strong love bond between two women, the Book of Ruth. Calderon shows Naomi returning to her native land from Moab. She is trying to dissuade her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, both Moabite women, from accompanying her. Orpah, the figure on the right, stays behind in Moab but Ruth, the central figure, insists on going with Naomi. She is shown passionately embracing her mother-in-law and asserting her continued commitment to her. This is the moment described in the book where Ruth declares: ‘where you go I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people and your God my God’ (Ruth 1: 16). Some scholars and historians have recently noted the closeness of this speech to contemporary wedding vows.
The story of Ruth and Naomi has traditionally been treated as a story of devote but platonic friendship between two women. More recently it has been suggested that the love between the two women might have been better described as a romance, or even sexual in nature. Trevor Dennis, Vice Dean of Chester Cathedral, for example, described the relationship between Ruth and Naomi as ‘the great love story of the bible’.* The story has become particularly important for members of the Jewish lesbian community seeking historical role models of female romantic love. This painting could be interpreted as reflecting these views. The embrace between the two women, certainly suggests an eroticism or passion that exceeds the normal bounds of friendship.
This painting was purchased by the Walker Art Gallery from the artist, when it was exhibited in the Autumn Exhibition in 1886
Trevor Dennis, ‘Face to Faith’: Lesbians and gays are the Bible's greatest lovers, ‘The Guardian’, Saturday 14 October 2006. See: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/oct/14/religion.gayrights (accessed 17.02.2017)