Genesis 9:18–10:32

The Drunkenness of Noah

Commentaries by Itay Sapir

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Michelangelo Buonarroti

The Drunkenness of Noah, 1509, Fresco, The Sistine Chapel, Vatican City; Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Convergences and Divergences

Commentary by Itay Sapir

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It might seem surprising that Michelangelo Buonarroti included the relatively rare episode of Noah’s drunkenness in his most important painting commission, along with much more theologically fundamental scenes from the book of Genesis. In the typological tradition, however, the drunken Noah is sometimes regarded as ‘a prophetic image of “Christ drunk with his passion”—a token of the “sacrament of the chalice”’—and the derision of Noah anticipates that of Christ (Wind 2000: 49–50). The adjacent images in the Sistine Chapel, the figures of the Delphic Sybil and of the prophet Joel, are also associated, respectively, with derision and the crown of thorns, and with wine and drunkards (see Wind 2000) and thus form a cluster of theological significance around this scene.

The fresco represents Noah twice: he is seen cultivating his vineyard on the left margin of the composition and lies drunk and naked on the right, in a posture unmistakably inspired by antique river gods. This is an odd choice in the early sixteenth century, when the practice of displaying subsequent events side by side in the same pictorial space—or on the same unit of pictorial surface—became archaic and was mostly avoided. In the main scene, however, the painter conflates two moments of the narrative into one image: Ham drawing his brothers’ attention to their naked father, and Shem and Japheth already hurrying to cover Noah’s exposed body.

The story seeks to explain the racial variety of humanity and—shockingly for us—the supposed hierarchy between different ethnic or racial categories. It thus makes a paradoxical demand of a painter: the three protagonists, although brothers, should already hint at the future visible distinction between their descendants. In Michelangelo’s depiction, we only see Ham from behind, making him immediately less accessible than his brothers to the viewer’s identification; and while Shem’s and Japheth’s hair is long and animated, the ancestor of Canaan sports a short, tight hairstyle—the only visual hint at the diverging future of their genealogical branches.



Davis, Stacy. 2008. This Strange Story: Jewish and Christian Interpretation of the Curse of Canaan from Antiquity to 1865 (Lanham: University Press of America)

Wind, Edgar. 2000. The Religious Symbolism of Michelangelo: The Sistine Ceiling, ed. by Elizabeth Sears (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Giovanni Bellini

Drunkenness of Noah, c.1515, Oil on canvas, 103 x 157 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon; © Besançon, musée des beaux-arts et d’archéologie; Photographie Éric Châtelain

Young and Old

Commentary by Itay Sapir

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Giovanni Bellini’s Drunkenness of Noah is one of his last works, coming at the end of a long and glorious career but surprisingly opening up potential new avenues for the painter’s art. The work has sometimes been interpreted as an autobiographical contemplation on the discontents of old age. It is also Bellini’s only depiction of an Old Testament scene (Arasse 1997: 59).

The Venetian artist chose to concentrate on one narrative moment: Shem’s and Japheth’s covering of their father’s naked body, starting with the most urgent concealing of his genitals. Bellini thus leaves out the previous, crucial action: Ham’s drawing his brothers’ attention to the shameful situation of their father. Instead, he makes Ham’s role much more explicitly negative than anything the passage from Genesis implies. Here, the wayward son (as he is imagined in later traditions) both mocks Noah with a facial grimace, and seems to try to prevent his brothers from fulfilling their filial duty, holding back their hands and arms.

Bellini’s contextualization of the scene is minimal but efficient. Although the four protagonists fill almost the entire painted surface, the background represents the vineyard—hardly more than a decorative screen—and the foreground includes two still life elements concisely reminding us of the previous events: a bunch of grapes and a tilted, almost empty cup. Noah’s somewhat unconventional posture has the double advantage of exposing him to the spectator’s eyes, emphasizing the vulnerability of the drunk old man, and of making explicit his invisibility to the averted, respectful gaze of Shem and Japheth.

Bellini chose to depict the three sons with a clear difference in age. On the left, Shem is represented as a middle-aged balding man with grey beard. Meanwhile, Japheth on the right is no more than a teenager, and Ham is somewhere in between. The painter thus takes a clear position regarding what seems to be a contradiction in the biblical text: the order in which the sons are first mentioned hints at the age sequence Bellini represented, but later in the text Ham is described as Noah’s ‘youngest son’ (9:24).

The ambiguity interested commentators such as Ephrem the Syrian, who claimed the latter reference is in fact to Canaan, Ham’s son (and Noah’s grandson), which in turn might justify Canaan’s curse (vv.25–27) as the consequence of his own deeds rather than those of his father. Bellini may have not been aware of such hermeneutical niceties, but his depiction does suggest that for him Ham as the ‘youngest son’ is not to be taken literally.



Arasse, Daniel. 1997. Le Sujet dans le tableau: Essais d'iconographie analytique (Paris: Flammarion)

Bernardo Cavallino

The Drunkenness of Noah, c.1640–45, Oil on panel, 41 x 37.7 cm, Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza; Inv. no. (CTB.1994.3.2), Photo: Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza / Scala / Art Resource, NY

Ecstasy and Shame

Commentary by Itay Sapir

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The Neapolitan Bernardo Cavallino painted Noah’s drunkenness twice, in both cases probably as a pendant to the other Old Testament story involving the drunkenness of a father: Lot and his daughters (Spinosa 2013).

The oval form of the Madrid version requires compositional creativity, and Cavallino, an indirect follower of Caravaggio, is certainly up for the task. The traditionally horizontal scene, centred on a man lying down, is here turned around; moreover, Noah’s body is strongly foreshortened and his head is positioned in the extreme foreground and in the lowest part of the painting.

Cavallino’s protagonist is without doubt Ham, the only son whose face is clearly visible and lit, and whose both hands are the most expressive actors in the drama. This can be understood as part of the Caravaggist tradition favouring the depiction of villains as more psychologically interesting than morally laudable figures; or more simply as a recognition of Ham’s responsibility in triggering the whole scene, as described in the book of Genesis. The relative invisibility of Shem’s and Japheth’s faces metonymically refers to their own insistence on not looking at their father’s nakedness.

As for Noah himself, Cavallino insists, explicitly and bluntly, on the old man’s shameful behaviour: his face has the reddish hue of a drunkard, and his genitals, not yet covered by the two respectful sons, are fully visible—particularly striking as Cavallino chose to cover most of Noah’s skin with clothes, depriving him of the possible nobility of the nude and leaving him starkly, and shockingly, half-naked. There is perhaps even an ironic pictorial reference here: the position of the old, generally virtuous Noah, fallen to degrading alcoholic stupor, could remind contemporary spectators of depictions of the altogether more spiritual ecstasy of Saint Paul’s conversion, particularly in Caravaggio’s version at Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, created just four decades earlier.

The irony is ambiguous, however: while the comparison is definitively to Noah’s disadvantage, it also partly exonerates him, his worldly drunkenness depicted as a type and shadow of the true and spiritual ecstasy of divine revelation, and thus as corresponding better with his role as an epitome of virtue in a world preceding the divine Incarnation.



Spinosa, Nicola. 2013. Grazia e tenerezza 'in posa': Bernardo Cavallino e il suo tempo 1616-1656 (Rome: Ugo Bozzi)

Michelangelo Buonarroti :

The Drunkenness of Noah, 1509 , Fresco

Giovanni Bellini :

Drunkenness of Noah, c.1515 , Oil on canvas

Bernardo Cavallino :

The Drunkenness of Noah, c.1640–45 , Oil on panel

The Abuse of the Body

Comparative commentary by Itay Sapir

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Aesthetically, these three depictions of the Drunkenness of Noah can be seen as telling in a nutshell the story of early modern art in Italy. In the Renaissance, this art was polarized between the linear, disegno-centred art of Florence (Michelangelo) and the Venetian apotheosis of colorito and surface effects; later, in its Baroque phase, Italian art reached eccentric extremities of composition, drama, and chiaroscuro.

However, one can also consider these three paintings as fascinating examples of very different ways to tell the biblical story: as a physical confrontation of athletic bodies in action; as a contemplative rendition of suffocating family discord; or as a dark, low-life dispute.

The story that is here interpreted in images may be read as a pseudo-historical, or indeed mythological, justification of racism: it suggests the idea that there is a difference in moral value, and consequently a justified divergence in social status, between ethnic or racial groups of people; and that the source of this hierarchy is to be found in an ‘original sin’ of one ancestor and, conversely, in the noble behaviour of other forefathers.

Artists could choose to emphasize this sort of interpretation by depicting Noah’s sons as physically dissimilar from each other, and thus as visually representing different human groups in the writers’ and readers’ present; or they could remain focused on the literal fact of Ham, Shem, and Japheth being brothers, and thus logically of the same general human ‘type’.

Our three artists by and large chose the latter option, although they do hint at a difference of appearance between the ‘good’ brothers and the ‘bad’ one: Michelangelo Buonarroti through hairstyle; Giovanni Bellini (curiously) by age, but also the visible signs of temperament; and Bernardo Cavallino more metaphorically by differentiating the painting technique—in particular sharpness of contour—with which the brothers are represented. None of the painters, however, directly reacted to the explicit racial distinction of the text as many early modern artists did—for instance, when depicting the Magi adoring Jesus as representing different races and thus humanity as a whole.

Who is the main protagonist of the biblical story? The scriptural text lets Noah verbally formulate the crucial meaning of the episode (Genesis 9:25–27), and the scene’s traditional title also mentions solely the father. In painting, however, the narrative priority is treated in different ways by Michelangelo, Bellini, and Cavallino.

The Florentine artist includes Noah twice in his fresco, and Ham, while positioned closer to the picture plane than his brothers, is visually marginalized by being the only person whose face we cannot see.

The Venetian painter made all family members equally visible but, perhaps with particular empathy (being himself by then an old man), made Noah the visual focus of the composition through lighting, painterly texture, and a somewhat unnatural posture.

And the Neapolitan similarly positions the father in the foreground and concentrates the light on him, while making him less obviously accessible to our gaze by the initially confusing extreme foreshortening—it is Ham who, active and expressive, becomes the dynamic focus of the scene. The latter son is blocked behind a tree trunk, but is nonetheless depicted in movement toward our space as viewers, thus giving him visual prominence.

Particularly interesting is the treatment of Noah’s nudity in the three paintings, as the solutions adopted here are completely divergent and through subtle variation interpret the original text differently.

Michelangelo’s Noah is entirely naked, and his posture, with its antique overtones, connotes nobility and divinity even in this supposedly degrading situation. The full nudity draws our attention away from the old man’s genitals as these become no more than a detail in a surprisingly athletic and muscular body (Noah is reportedly 600 years old at that point!).

Bellini and Cavallino prefer partial nudity, but make diametrically opposed choices as to which parts to cover and which to display. The former exposes Noah’s body to our gaze but makes sure Japheth has just had enough time to hide his father’s genitals and save his honour. While Noah here is not as classically idealized as Michelangelo’s, he is reasonably respectable. More than a century later, Cavallino covers most of Noah’s body but not his pubic area; he thus deprives the venerable old man of any trace of nobility and makes him a banal drunkard just like those one could presumably encounter in the streets of Naples.



Davis, Stacy. 2008. This Strange Story: Jewish and Christian Interpretation of the Curse of Canaan from Antiquity to 1865 (Lanham: University Press of America)

Goldenberg, David M. 2003. The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

——— . 2017. Black and Slave: The Origins and History of the Curse of Ham (Berlin: De Gruyter)

Whitford, David M. 2009. The Curse of Ham in the Early Modern Era: The Bible and the Justifications (Farnham: Ashgate)

Next exhibition: Genesis 11:1–9

Genesis 9:18–10:32

Revised Standard Version

18 The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. 19These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled.

20 Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; 21and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent. 22And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. 24When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25he said,

“Cursed be Canaan;

a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

26He also said,

“Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem;

and let Canaan be his slave.

27God enlarge Japheth,

and let him dwell in the tents of Shem;

and let Canaan be his slave.”

28 After the flood Noah lived three hundred and fifty years. 29All the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died.

10 These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth; sons were born to them after the flood.

2 The sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras. 3The sons of Gomer: Ashʹkenaz, Riphath, and Togarʹmah. 4The sons of Javan: Eliʹshah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Doʹdanim. 5From these the coastland peoples spread. These are the sons of Japheth in their lands, each with his own language, by their families, in their nations.

6 The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. 7The sons of Cush: Seba, Havʹilah, Sabtah, Raʹamah, and Sabʹteca. The sons of Raʹamah: Sheba and Dedan. 8Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. 9He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” 10The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. 11From that land he went into Assyria, and built Ninʹeveh, Rehoʹboth-Ir, Calah, and 12Resen between Ninʹeveh and Calah; that is the great city. 13Egypt became the father of Ludim, Anʹamim, Lehaʹbim, Naph-tuʹhim, 14Pathruʹsim, Casluʹhim (whence came the Philistines), and Caphʹtorim.

15 Canaan became the father of Sidon his first-born, and Heth, 16and the Jebʹusites, the Amorites, the Girʹgashites, 17the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, 18the Arʹvadites, the Zemʹarites, and the Haʹmathites. Afterward the families of the Canaanites spread abroad. 19And the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon, in the direction of Gerar, as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorʹrah, Admah, and Zeboiʹim, as far as Lasha. 20These are the sons of Ham, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations.

21 To Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the elder brother of Japheth, children were born. 22The sons of Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arpachʹshad, Lud, and Aram. 23The sons of Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash. 24Arpachʹshad became the father of Shelah; and Shelah became the father of Eber. 25To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother’s name was Joktan. 26Joktan became the father of Almoʹdad, Sheleph, Hazarmaʹveth, Jerah, 27Hadorʹam, Uzal, Diklah, 28Obal, Abimʹa-el, Sheba, 29Ophir, Havʹilah, and Jobab; all these were the sons of Joktan. 30The territory in which they lived extended from Mesha in the direction of Sephar to the hill country of the east. 31These are the sons of Shem, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations.

32 These are the families of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.