The Rainbow and Noah Freeing the Animals from the Ark, from the south barrel vault, west narthex by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

The Rainbow and Noah Freeing the Animals from the Ark, from the south barrel vault, west narthex, 13th century, Mosaic, Basilica di San Marco, Venice, Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

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Après le Déluge

Commentary by
Read by Lydia Ayoade

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. 

 

References

Demus, Otto. 1984. The Mosaics of San Marco in Venice, 2 vols (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)


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