The Reception of Job in Visual Art by Brennan Breed

Job, the beleaguered man of impeccable moral character in the book that bears his name, is most often depicted by artists as half-naked atop a garbage heap, covered with sores, surrounded by three friends and his wife. In some works, Job patiently endures his pain, but in others he screams at God. Job’s wife and friends either berate him or they sit in supportive silence, as in the fresco at Parz Castle.

Why would artists depict Job so differently? The poetry in book of Job is often difficult to interpret, so artists have a wide range of options when depicting the story. Job’s friends are caring and kind (Job 2:11-13) but also angrily berate Job (Job 22:5-10). Job is respectful toward God (Job 1:21) but later accuses God of cruelly hunting him for no reason (Job 16:7-17). Though many artists have understood Job to be an example of patience (see Jas 5:11), Job loses his patience even by the third chapter of the book (Job 3:1). Job’s identity is equally confusing—is he a Jew, as suggested by his knowledge of the divine name (Job 1:21), or a Gentile, since he lives in Uz and is a person “of the east” (Job 1:3)? a merchant or a king?

Since Job speaks often of his own mortality (Job 7:15-21), many ancient Jewish and Christian readers associated Job with funerary rites—and because he survives, some saw in him hope for resurrection. Images of Job appear often in early Christian catacombs and on sarcophagi from the third century C.E. as a symbol of eternal life after death. Medieval western Christians included Job’s words in the ritual prayers for the dead; illuminated prayer books, called Books of Hours, often include an image of Job. Christians also understood Job to be a foreshadowing of Christ’s death and resurrection. In the later Middle Ages, many Christians understood Job to be a plague saint and prayed to him for intercession to heal their diseases.

Images of Job often include details found in nonbiblical sources. For example, in the Qur’an, Job only suffers patiently; eventually God commands Job to strike his foot on the ground, producing a spring of water to rise and restore him (sura 21). Later Muslim traditions expand upon this story, and many of these details are represented in Muslim art. Likewise, details from extrabiblical Jewish and Christian legends of Job, including the intriguing connection between Job and musicians, appear frequently in Western art. Many medieval legends about Job derive from the ancient Jewish folktale called the Testament of Job, likely written in the first century B.C.E., which describes Job playing music to entertain his servants and giving musical instruments to his daughters.

In the Rothschild Miscellany, an enormous illuminated manuscript commissioned by a Jewish patron, Job is a wealthy Renaissance merchant. In the late fifteenth century C.E., Italian Jews flourished during a brief period of relative political favor. This image of Job thus reflects a successful Jewish community that nonetheless admits to previous—and future—suffering.

In the modern era, artists often grapple with radical elements in the book of Job, from God’s seeming indifference to Job’s suffering to Job’s questioning of divine justice. In response to the horrors of the twentieth century, in particular the Holocaust, many artists have used the figure of Job to express anger and rebellion in the face of undeserved, extreme suffering. This anger and despair, often accompanied by spiritual doubt, are reflected in the drawings of Marc Chagall, the woodcuts of Jakob Steinhardt, the paintings of Francis Gruber, and the sculptures of Gerhard Marcks and Ivan Meštrovi.

Brennan Breed, "Reception of Job in Visual Art", n.p. [cited 5 Dec 2022]. Online:


Brennan Breed

Brennan Breed
Assistant Professor, Columbia Theological Seminary

Brennan Breed is assistant professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. Much of his research focuses on the reception history of the Bible, which studies the ways in which biblical texts function in diverse contexts in liturgy, theology, visual art, literature, and politics.

Underground passages used for burial and religious practice; originally referred specifically to the catacombs beneath Rome.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

a person who is not Jewish

Of or relating to the Middle Ages, generally from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. and overlapping somewhat with late antiquity.

The historical period generally spanning from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. in Europe and characterized by decreases in populations and the degeneration of urban life.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

A person deemed holy by a religious tradition, especially in Roman Catholicism.

A work dating from the first century B.C.E. to the first century C.E. that describes Job’s final conversation with his family before his death. It gives both the “accuser” figure and Job’s wife greater roles than in the biblical text.

Job 2:11-13

Job's Three Friends
11Now when Job's three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, ... View more

Job 22:5-10

5Is not your wickedness great?
There is no end to your iniquities.6For you have exacted pledges from your family for no reason,
and stripped the naked of their ... View more

Job 1:21

21He said, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job 16:7-17

7Surely now God has worn me out;
he has made desolate all my company.8And he has shriveled me up,
which is a witness against me;
my leanness has risen up agains ... View more

Jas 5:11

11Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassi ... View more

Job 3:1

Job Curses the Day He Was Born
1After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.

Job 1:21

21He said, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job 1:3

3He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest ... View more

Job 7:15-21

15so that I would choose strangling
and death rather than this body.16I loathe my life; I would not live forever.
Let me alone, for my days are a breath.17What ... View more

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