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The Rainbow and Noah Freeing the Animals from the Ark, from the south barrel vault, west narthex by Unknown artist
Dome by Vincenzo Foppa (?)
Untitled by Dan Flavin

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

Vincenzo Foppa (?)

Dome, c.1462–68, Fresco, Portinari Chapel, Basilica of Sant'Eustorgio, Milan, akg-images / Mondadori Portfolio / Mauro Ranzani

Dan Flavin

Untitled, 1996, Green, ultraviolet, blue, pink, and yellow fluorescent light, Nave: two sections, each 28 m wide; Transept: two sections, each 9.75 m wide; Apse: two sections, each 9.75 m high, Permanent installation at Santa Maria Annunciata in Chiesa Rossa, Milan, Copyright: © 2020 Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Image: Courtesy David Zwirner

Bands of Light and Bonds of Love

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Lydia Ayoade

Over just a few lines, Genesis 9:11–17 reiterates four times the significance of the rainbow as signum foederis—the sign, or visible token, of the covenant between God and creation, and the reminder of His promise never again to destroy the earth by a flood. This is an image of extraordinary potency and delicacy. The rainbow is the most evanescent of atmospheric phenomena. Yet, of all things, God chose this diaphanous entity as the antidote against His wrath.

How do the artworks brought together in this exhibition relay the role of the rainbow as intermediary? How do they visualize the biblical image of an impalpable thing of light that protects the world from destruction? 

The mosaic of San Marco is the most literal of the three renditions. Here, the apex of the rainbow touches a blue hemicycle that stands for the sky, while its end touches the ground near the lion of Venice, visually bridging earth and heaven.

In the Cappella Portinari the significance of the rainbow as intermediary between God and creation is expressed through sophisticated interactions between natural light, architecture, and painting. Sunlight—an enduring symbol of the divine—filters into the chapel through the lantern at the summit of the dome. The concentric bands of colour in the cupola, arranged around the lantern, visually manifest the divine origin of the rainbow. Hovering majestically above the beholder, the rainbow dome simultaneously conjures the biblical covenant and the radiance of God at the end of time. Thus, it encourages viewers to weave together Genesis and Revelation, and to reflect upon the reciprocity between divine power and mercy.

Finally, Dan Flavin’s installation immerses the faithful in densely coloured air—making them experience the transformative power of divine presence.  

These artworks craftily exploit physical light, and its interaction with different artistic media and with architecture, to render the ephemeral and visually unstable nature of the rainbow. Mosaic is a highly reflective medium. It glitters when hit by light-rays, but becomes dim and lustreless in low lighting. Just as the rainbow appears in the sky when light pierces the clouds at their darkest, so the light of candles or sun beams brings the dazzling gold background of the mosaic of San Marco to life, and enlivens the image of the arc in it. The Cappella Portinari also significantly interacts with light. The fish-scale design of its dome diffuses natural light, creating a palpitating, misty visual effect that conjures the impalpability of the rainbow. Even more radically, Flavin’s installation changes with the seasonal cycle and according to the time of day. Barely perceptible in daylight, it becomes progressively more intense and saturated as natural light decreases. At nightfall, or on gloomy days, the church literally glows, almost a rainbow against dark skies. 

While each of these artworks visually relates to the rainbow, and to the biblical passage that records its first appearance, they also work on other planes of meaning. Appropriately for the state church of Venice, the mosaic in the atrium of San Marco transforms the biblical episode into an implicit assertion of Venice’s myth of predestination: the idea that the city was especially favoured by God. The Cappella Portinari, built for a community of learned Dominicans, favoured an abstract ‘colour field’ over figural representations of the Scriptures. This visual device enabled the friars to exercise their theological knowledge, linking the narrative of divine goodwill and protection presented in Genesis with notions of divine judgement and ideas of beatific vision from Ezekiel and Revelation. Finally, Flavin’s work was installed in the parish church of a less affluent urban neighbourhood, and was intended for a mixed audience of clergy and laypeople. This installation is the most elusive of the three artworks. It offers a spectacular and overpowering manifestation of divine presence. Yet, it eschews univocal interpretation or direct associations with a scriptural passage. Instead, it alludes to a range of theological concepts that lie at the core of the Christian faith: the relationship between God and humankind, and between eternity and temporality; the proceedings of divine grace; and the connection between the Old Testament covenant mediated by the rainbow, and the new covenant mediated by Christ.   

Together, these artworks manifest the fruitfulness and complexity that mark all interactions between the Scripture and the images that seek to relay its meaning. On the one hand, even the most literal visual rendition of the bible entails high degrees of interpretative freedom, inevitably transforming the text through specific aesthetic, social, and cultural lenses. On the other hand, the visual—enigmatic and open-ended by nature—is uniquely capable of manifesting the vinculum between what is visible and what cannot be seen, thus entering a fruitful dialogue with Scripture, and sharing in its revelatory power.