The Drunkenness of Noah by Michelangelo Buonarroti

Michelangelo Buonarroti

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

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Convergences and Divergences

Commentary by

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.

 

References

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)

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