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.
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)
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.