Sunday, February 18, 2024

"I set my bow in the clouds"


Jean Joubert, The Sacrifice of Noah
French, c. 1721-1725
Paris, Musee du Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques

“God said to Noah and to his sons with him:

"See, I am now establishing my covenant with you

and your descendants after you

and with every living creature that was with you:

all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals

that were with you and came out of the ark.

I will establish my covenant with you,

that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed

by the waters of a flood;

there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth."

God added:

"This is the sign that I am giving for all ages to come,

of the covenant between me and you

and every living creature with you:

I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign

of the covenant between me and the earth.

When I bring clouds over the earth,

and the bow appears in the clouds,

I will recall the covenant I have made

between me and you and all living beings,

so that the waters shall never again become a flood

to destroy all mortal beings."

Genesis 9:8-15

(First Reading for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B)


The New Beginnings of Lent

Lent is a time for new beginnings.  Each year Christians are invited to think again, to reform their lives, to start anew in their efforts to follow Christ.  In the liturgical readings also there are new beginnings.  Each year the Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent is drawn from the account of the temptations of Christ from each of the Synoptic Gospels in turn.  The temptations of Christ mark the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus, the point at which he leaves his hitherto quiet life in Nazareth and takes to the roads of Galilee and Judea, gathering disciples and preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God.  In Year B the first, Old Testament, reading is also the story of a new beginning. 


The Story of Noah

It is the end of the story of Noah and the great Flood.  In this story Noah receives God’s command to build a huge ship, an ark, big enough for himself, his wife, his family and two of every animal alive.  God tells him that he is about to destroy the sinful people of the earth with a great Flood, but that Noah and his family and the animals they bring with them will survive to repopulate the cleansed earth.  Noah does as he is commanded.  He builds the ark, in spite of the derision of his neighbors and, at a further command from God, he loads the ship with one pair of all the animals on the earth, plus the food for all of them.  Then he and his family board as well and the rains come and come and come and come.  The earth floods and remains flooded for months.  All living things not on board the ark die in the waters.  It takes further months for the water to begin to evaporate.

Master of the Livre du Sacre of Charles V, Noah and His Wife in the Ark
From a Speculum historiale by Vincent of Beavais
French (Paris), c. 1370-1380
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de Franc
MS Nouvelle acquisition francaise 15939, fol. 26v
In this charming image, Noah and his wife peer out of the ark as a raven leaves and a dove returns from a scouting mission.  As yet there is no rainbow.  The blue, white and red circle at the upper right is a symbolic representation of the sun amid clouds.  In addition, it is behind the ark so that Noah and his wife cannot even see it.

Eventually Noah sends out birds, ravens and a dove, to see if there is any dry land.  The birds are unsuccessful at first, but eventually they bring him evidence that the land has dried sufficiently for plants to begin to grow again.  The ark finally comes to rest on a mountain and the people and the animals leave and begin to spread out over the earth again.  At this point Noah prepares a sacrifice to thank God for saving them and it is then that God speaks once again.  He announces that he will make an agreement, a covenant, with Noah and his family to never again drown all living things.  The covenant includes not only the humans but all the other living things that were aboard the ark.  And the sign of the covenant will be the rainbow that appears in the sky after rain.  It will be a reminder that God will never again so completely devastate the earth with water. 


Master of Coeetivy, Scenes from the Old Testament, Noah in the Ark
From Histoire ancienne jusqu'a Cesar
French (Paris), c. 1460-1465
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 64, fol. 17r (detail)
This image moves the appearance of the rainbow to the time that Noah is still in the ark, sending out the birds as scouts.

The Rainbow

Rainbows have always seemed a trifle magical.  Even now, when we understand the physical mechanism that makes them, the breakdown of light into the color spectrum that occurs as the light passes through raindrops, there is still something ethereal and otherworldly about them.  Imagine how it must have seemed to people who did not realize how the shining, translucent arch of colors was created!  No wonder that the biblical authors imagined this thing of beauty was a sign of God’s benevolence, for the rainbow usually means that the rain is over of at least that it is ending. 

For artists, picturing a rainbow may be a bit daunting.  Real rainbows are subtle and ephemeral.  Such an effect isn’t easy to reproduce, especially so before the development of oil paint in the later middle ages, so they mostly were content to depict a rainbow as solid, multicolored bands forming an arch shape. 


Early Depictions:  Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

While depictions of Noah and the ark date from the earliest works of Christian art following the Edict of Milan in 315, these images focus primarily on the central act of the story, the building, stocking and survival of the ark during the Flood.  Images of the aftermath do not appear for some time.  The earliest one I was able to find dates from the sixth century copy of the Book of Genesis, known as the Vienna Genesis.  

Early depictions of the rainbow sign of the covenant between God and Man generally interpret the story simply, as an image that focuses on the confrontation between God, whether shown in full figure or as just a symbolic hand extended from the heavens, and Noah.  It appears in virtually every medium available.


The Rainbow of the Covenant
From the Vienna Genesis
Greek, 6th century
Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek
MS Codex Vindobonensis theol. grec. 31

God Tells Noah to Leave the Ark and Makes a Covenant with Him
Italian, 11th-12th Century
Salerno, Museo Diocesano San Matteo

Mosaic Artist, God Makes a Covenant with Noah
Byzantine, c. 1150-1171
Palermo, Palazzo dei Normanni, Cappella Palatina

The Sacrifice of Noah
Italian, c. 1147-1189
Monreale, Church of Santa Maria la Nuova
You may have to enlarge this to see the tiny figure of God peering down from a cloud to talk to Noah.

Mosaic Artist, The Sacrifice of Noah
Byzantine, c. 1180-1189
Monreale, Church of Santa Maria Nuova

God's Covenant with Noah
From a Commentary on Psalms 1-50 by Simon of Tournnai
French, c. 11950-1205
New  York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 338, fol. 145r
The illuminator of this work decided to show the event with three separate pictures, not as a unified whole.  Therefore, Noah and God appear as small figures within the decorative capital letters of the text, while the rainbow appears at the top of the page.

The Sign of God's Promise
French, 12th-13th Century
Chartres, Cathedral of Notre Dame

God's Covenant with Noah
German, c. 1335
Wienhausen, Evangelical Convent and Former Cistercian Cloister of Saint Mary

Paolo Uccello, The Sacrifice of Noah and God's Covenant with Noah
From Scenes from the life of Noah
Italian, c. 1447-1448
Florence, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Green Cloister

The Renaissance, Mannerism and the Proto-Baroque

The same holds true for works produced in the periods known as the Renaissance and Mannerist periods.  During these periods woodcuts and engravings came to replace painted illuminations as the illustrations in books.  And both mural and panel painting spread far and wide.  


    Book Illustrations

Mongrammist FA, God Shows Noah and His Family the Rainbow
German, Early 16th Century
Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kupferstich-Kabinett

Monogrammist MS, Scenes from the story of Noah after the Flood
From a Luther Bible
German, 1534
London, Trustees of the British Museum

Hans Bol for Gerard de Jode, After the Flood_
Flemish, c. 15510-1600
Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek

Philips Galle After Maarten van Heemskerck, The Sacrifice of Noah
From The Disasters of the Jewish People
Flemish, 1569
Philadelphia, Museum of Art


Willem de Pannemaker after Michiel Coxie the Elder, God Blesses Noah's Family
Flemish, After 1567
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum


    The Bassano Workshop

One interesting sidelight on the paintings of this subject is that the Italian Bassano family seems to have developed a specialty in painting this subject.  There are numerous paintings attributed to the members of the family, whether by actual documentation or by attribution.  What is most interesting about them, however, is their uniform manner of telling this story.  No matter the attribution and no matter the actual manner of painting, the compositions are virtually identical.  It appears that there was one family blueprint for painting the subject, which every member followed.

Workshop of Bassano family, The Sacrifice of Noah After the Deluge
Italian, Second Half of the 16th Century
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Leandro Bassano, The Sacrifice of Noah After the Deluge
Italian, c. 1575-1600
Madrid, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando

Jacopo Bassano, The Sacrifice of Noah After the Deluge
Italian, c. 1580-1592
Rome, Galleria Borghese

    Other Painters

Baldassare Croce, God's Covenant with Noah
Italian, c. 1587-1588
Rome, San Giovanni in Laterano Complex, Scala Santa, Left Stairway

Antonio Viviani, The Sacrifice of Noah
Italian, c. 1585-1596
Rome, Palazzo Barberini

The Growing Absence of God

One thing that really surprised me while I was working on assembling the pictures for this essay was that, over the course of the sixteenth century, the figure of God disappears from many works of art.  He is either missing entirely or has been replaced by the tetragrammaton, the Hebrew name for God, written in Hebrew letters.

Pieter van der Borcht, The Sacrifice of Noah and the Covenant with God
From Imagines et Figurae Bibliorum
Flemish, 1581
London, Trustees of the British Museum


Attributed to Symon Novelanus, The Sacrifice of Noah
From Figurae et imagines bibliorum
Dutch, c. 1600
Amserdam, Rijksmuseum

Crispijn de Passe the Elder, God Enters into a Covenant with Noah
From a Genesis
Dutch, 1612
New York, Met, Drawings and Prints

The Baroque Period

This continues during the Baroque period, when one is as likely to find the image of God as the find the tetragrammaton or absolutely nothing as the source of the rainbow.  In general, the tendency is toward a less miraculous rendering for the source of the rainbow, indeed, often resulting in the depiction of only the rainbow itself.  

Nicolas Poussin, The Sacrifice of Noah
French, First Half of the17th Century
Knutsford, Cheshire (UK), National Trust, Tatton Park

Johann  König, The Sacrifice of Noah
German, c. 1620-1630
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Noah and his family can be seen in the left middle ground offering their sacrifice to God. who appears at the top of the picture.  The foreground is littered with the bodies of those who drowned in the Flood.

Nicolas Poussin, The Sacrifice of Noah
French, c. 1620s
Paris, Musee du Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques
Although this drawing bears many resemblances to the painting above, there are also some significant differences.  It represents Poussin's thought process in design.  

Matthaues Merian I, Noah and His Family After the Flood
From Icones Biblicae
German (Frankfurt-am-Main), c. 1625-1630
London, Trustees of the British Museum
This is an example of an image that uses the tetragrammaton to represent God instead of a figure.

Pietro da Cortona, God's Covenant with Noah
Italian, c. 1645
Florence, Palazzo Pitti

Cornelis Cort after Maarten van Heemskerck, The Sacrifice of Noah
From an Illustrated Bible
Dutch, 1646 (after drawing of 1558-1560
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Another image using the tetragrammaton as a substitute for the figure of God.

Lodovico Gimignani, The Alliance Between God and Noah
 Allegory on the House of Pamphili
Italian, c. Second Half of 17th Century
London, The Courtauld Gallery

Pietro Santo Bartoli After Raphael, God Shows the Rainbow to Noah
Italian, c. 1650-1677
Vienna, The Albertina

Pieter Hendrickszoon Schut, The Covenant Between God & Noah
From the Series Toneel ofte vertooch der Bybelsche historien
Dutch, 1659
Ghent, Museum voor Schone Kunsten
Another image using the tetragrammaton as a substitute for the figure of God.

Franz Karl Bueeler, The Sacrifice of Noah and the Sacrifice of the Mass
Swiss, c. 1660
Bischofszell (SZ),  Historical Museum
This really interesting stained glass roundel equates the daily sacrifice of the Mass with the sacrifice of Noah after the Flood.  He has chosen the moment at which the priest begins the Eucharistic Prayer with the admonition to "Lift up your hearts" (Sursum corda).  As Noah and his family lift up their eyes to see God and the rainbow of his covenant, so we lift  up our hearts toward God who will become present at the consecration which is soon to follow.

Franz Friedrich Franck, The Sign of Peace Between God and Men
German, 1667
Augsburg, Lutheran Church of Saint Ulrich
A note from the picture source suggests that the texts at top and bottom were added later and are not contemporary with the picture.  The top caption reads: "A covenant binds us to the Father", while the bottom caption reads: "You create peace between God and the world".

Juan Antonio de Frias y Escalante, Noah and His Family After the Flood
Spanish, 1668
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Nicolas Fontaine, The Going Out of the Ark and the Rainbow
From The History of the Old and the New Testament
French, c. 1688-1690
Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, Folger Digital Image Collection
The image of God and even the tetragrammaton is here replaced by a banner, held by putti, praising the patronage of the Frances Teresa Stuart, the Countess of Richmond and Lenox, who was the patroness of the illustrator.  If it weren't for the legend at the bottom of the page one might question exactly what is being depicted.

The Eighteeenth- and Nineteenth Centuries

This non-miraculous interpretation of the rainbow event is especially true from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the present, with a few notable exceptions.

     The Eighteenth Century

Elias van Nijmegen, The Sacrifice of Noah
Dutch, c. First Half of 18th Century
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Circle of Carlo Antonio Carlone, The Sacrifice of Noah
Italian, c. 1701-1715
Lambach (AU), Benedictine Monastery of Saint Florian, Ambulatory

Jan Luyken, The Sacrifice of Noah_
From Historiae Celebriores Veteris Testamenti
Dutch, 1708_Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
This book illustration by Jan Luyken appears to have been the inspiration for the anonymous painting below.  Book illustrations and prints were often used by patrons and artists in planning other works of art.

The Sacrifice of Noah
German, c. 1700-1750
Schwäbisch Hall, City Hall

Caspar Luyken, The Sacrifice of Noah
Dutch, 1712
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Francesco Fernandi, The Sacrifice of Noah_
Italian, c. 1720
Stourhead, Wiltshire (UK), National Trust Collections

Jacopo Amigoni, The Sacrifice of Noah
Italian, 1728
Ottobeuren, Ottobeuren Benedictine Monastery Chapel

Saverio Grue, The Sacrifice of Noah
Painted ceramic plaque
Italian (Caserta), c. 1755
London, Trustees of the British Museum

Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, The Sacrifice of Noah
From the Macklin Bible, Vol. 1-4
French, 1794
Nashville, Vanderbilt University, Jean and Alexander Heard Library

    The Nineteenth Century

Joseph Anton Koch, The Sacrifice of Noah
German, 1803
Frankfurt (Main), Städel Museum

Joseph Anton Koch, The Sacrifice of Noah
German, 1814
Berlin, Nationalgalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin

Early nineteenth century images of the subject continue the basic narrative style that had been established in the Renaissance.  However, during the course of the new century other ideas of how to depict things appeared.  High drama entered the narrative, fueled by ideas of the sublime that were expounded by the early Romantic movement.  Therefore, images of the rainbow's appearance take on an air of grand opera, which was also developing at this time (think about the change from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro with its domestic setting to Verdi's Aida with its spectacular processions and temple scenes for example).

John Martin, The Covenant
From Illustrations to the Bible
English, 1832
London, Tate Gallery

Daniel Maclise, Noah's Sacrifice
Irish, c. 1847-1853
Leeds, Leeds Art Gallery

Wilhelm Obermann after Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Noah's Sacrifice
From Die Bible in Bildern, Plate 19
German, 1852- 1860
Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle

Ludwig Gloetzle, Sacrifice of Noah
German, c. 1888-1891
Salzburg, Cathedral of Saints Rupert and Virgil

Other influences also exerted their own impact on the imagination of artists, such as the medievalism of Viollet-le-Duc's "restoration" of Notre Dame de Paris or the lure of the romantic primitive  worked on the imagination by thoughts and beliefs about the natives of the Americas or the inhabitants of the Scottish highlands or of the classical world encouraged by the development of archaeology.  All of these influences appear in images of Noah and God's covenant with him.

Jean Bataille, The Sacrifice of Noah
Flemish, c. 1841
Ghent, Museum voor Schone Kunsten

Steinheil, The Sacrifice of Noah
French, Middle of the 19th Century
Paris, Sainte Chapelle

Frederick James Shields, Stained Glass Design
English, c. 1900-1910
Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton Art Gallery

The Twentieth and the Twenty-First Centuries*

A Notable Exception

I mentioned that there was a notable exception to the trend of removing the image of God from the depictions of the appearance of the rainbow.  Here it is.  It was created in 1923 by the German artist Lovis Corinth and is quite different in tone from its predecessors.  Instead of God appearing in the sky, he stands side by side wth Noah, pointing to the bow he has set in the heavens as a reminder of his pact with humans and all other creatures.

Lovis Corinth, The Rainbow
German, 1923
Chicago, Art Institute

However, this seems to be a solitary exception.  The figure of God has basically been removed from the visual language of this important biblical story.

Kundry Niederhausen, Noah's Ark Window
Swiss, 2014
Raperswilen, Evangelical Church

And so it is today.  The story of Noah is there, but only the mark of the covenant appears, not the maker. 


Maybe it’s time for a new beginning.


© M. Duffy, 2024

 * Please note that the images shown here are not entirely representative of the work of the last two centuries.  There may be other recent images of this subject for which picture are not available due to copyright restrictions.  Please also note that any work of art dated between 1922 and the present is still in copyright and the rights to reproduction belong to the copyright owner.

Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.


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