This mosaic belongs to a lengthy Old Testament cycle in the atrium of the church of San Marco, Venice, from the thirteenth century. The scene conflates Genesis 8:18–19 with Genesis 9:11–17, providing a vivid visual rendition of the covenant sealed by God with humankind at the end of the deluge.
In this mosaic, which is accompanied by several other episodes from the story of the deluge, Noah has finally left the ark together with his wife, his three sons, and their wives (Genesis 8:18), the forebears of all earthly nations. These figures are framed by a rainbow, at once created by God as the tangible token and perennial reminder of his promise that never again ‘will the waters become a flood to destroy all life’ (Genesis 9:15).
As a narrative of rescue from death by drowning, the biblical deluge is likely to have held intense appeal in Venice. The city was built on water: it was vulnerable to floods and high tides, and its prosperity depended then—as it does now—on a fragile ecosystem. In addition, Venice’s economy relied on shipbuilding and maritime trade, making its citizens especially sensitive to atmospheric phenomena, and to the dangers of storms. These first-hand experiences surely tinted Venetian receptions of the biblical deluge. In turn, familiarity with the biblical text may have amplified the local significance of the rainbow as a token of hope, and as assurance of God’s benevolence towards the water-bound community.
Confirming such topical inflections, Noah is represented in the act of freeing animals to re-populate the earth (Genesis 8:19). While several species roam freely in the lower portion of the scene, the iconographic focus is on a pair of lions. Their prominence is probably not accidental. The lion was the symbol of Saint Mark and of the city of Venice. Its presence in the mosaic implied Venice’s membership in the biblical covenant. It reassured viewers of God’s continuing good will towards the city. And it demonstrates to us how medieval communities engaged with sacred history, and made it relevant to their present concerns.
Demus, Otto. 1984. The Mosaics of San Marco in Venice, 2 vols (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)
20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. 22While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
9 And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. 2The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. 3Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. 4Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. 5For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. 6Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image. 7And you, be fruitful and multiply, bring forth abundantly on the earth and multiply in it.”
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9“Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” 17God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”