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