The Drunkenness of Noah by Bernardo Cavallino

Bernardo Cavallino

The Drunkenness of Noah, c.1640–45, Oil on panel, 41 x 37.7 cm, Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Inv. no. (CTB.1994.3.2), Photo: Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza / Scala / Art Resource, NY

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Ecstasy and Shame

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The Neapolitan Bernardo Cavallino painted Noah’s drunkenness twice, in both cases probably as a pendant to the other Old Testament story involving the drunkenness of a father: Lot and his daughters (Spinosa 2013).

The oval form of the Madrid version requires compositional creativity, and Cavallino, an indirect follower of Caravaggio, is certainly up for the task. The traditionally horizontal scene, centred on a man lying down, is here turned around; moreover, Noah’s body is strongly foreshortened and his head is positioned in the extreme foreground and in the lowest part of the painting.

Cavallino’s protagonist is without doubt Ham, the only son whose face is clearly visible and lit, and whose both hands are the most expressive actors in the drama. This can be understood as part of the Caravaggist tradition favouring the depiction of villains as more psychologically interesting than morally laudable figures; or more simply as a recognition of Ham’s responsibility in triggering the whole scene, as described in the book of Genesis. The relative invisibility of Shem’s and Japheth’s faces metonymically refers to their own insistence on not looking at their father’s nakedness.

As for Noah himself, Cavallino insists, explicitly and bluntly, on the old man’s shameful behaviour: his face has the reddish hue of a drunkard, and his genitals, not yet covered by the two respectful sons, are fully visible—particularly striking as Cavallino chose to cover most of Noah’s skin with clothes, depriving him of the possible nobility of the nude and leaving him starkly, and shockingly, half-naked. There is perhaps even an ironic pictorial reference here: the position of the old, generally virtuous Noah, fallen to degrading alcoholic stupor, could remind contemporary spectators of depictions of the altogether more spiritual ecstasy of Saint Paul’s conversion, particularly in Caravaggio’s version at Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, created just four decades earlier.

The irony is ambiguous, however: while the comparison is definitively to Noah’s disadvantage, it also partly exonerates him, his worldly drunkenness depicted as a type and shadow of the true and spiritual ecstasy of divine revelation, and thus as corresponding better with his role as an epitome of virtue in a world preceding the divine Incarnation.

 

References

Spinosa, Nicola. 2013. Grazia e tenerezza 'in posa': Bernardo Cavallino e il suo tempo 1616-1656 (Rome: Ugo Bozzi)

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