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 three 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)
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.