Drunkenness of Noah by Giovanni Bellini

Giovanni Bellini

Drunkenness of Noah, c.1515, Oil on canvas, 103 x 157 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon, © Besançon, musée des beaux-arts et d’archéologie; Photographie Éric Châtelain

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Young and Old

Commentary by

Giovanni Bellini’s Drunkenness of Noah is one of his last works, coming at the end of a long and glorious career but surprisingly opening up potential new avenues for the painter’s art. The work has sometimes been interpreted as an autobiographical contemplation on the discontents of old age. It is also Bellini’s only depiction of an Old Testament scene (Arasse 1997: 59).

The Venetian artist chose to concentrate on one narrative moment: Shem’s and Japheth’s covering of their father’s naked body, starting with the most urgent concealing of his genitals. Bellini thus leaves out the previous, crucial action: Ham’s drawing his brothers’ attention to the shameful situation of their father. Instead, he makes Ham’s role much more explicitly negative than anything the passage from Genesis implies. Here, the wayward son (as he is imagined in later traditions) both mocks Noah with a facial grimace, and seems to try to prevent his brothers from fulfilling their filial duty, holding back their hands and arms.

Bellini’s contextualization of the scene is minimal but efficient. Although the four protagonists fill almost the entire painted surface, the background represents the vineyard—hardly more than a decorative screen—and the foreground includes two still life elements concisely reminding us of the previous events: a bunch of grapes and a tilted, almost empty cup. Noah’s somewhat unconventional posture has the double advantage of exposing him to the spectator’s eyes, emphasizing the vulnerability of the drunk old man, and of making explicit his invisibility to the averted, respectful gaze of Shem and Japheth.

Bellini chose to depict the three sons with a clear difference in age. On the left, Shem is represented as a middle-aged balding man with grey beard. Meanwhile, Japheth on the right is no more than a teenager, and Ham is somewhere in between. The painter thus takes a clear position regarding what seems to be a contradiction in the biblical text: the order in which the sons are first mentioned hints at the age sequence Bellini represented, but later in the text Ham is described as Noah’s ‘youngest son’ (9:24).

The ambiguity interested commentators such as Ephrem the Syrian, who claimed the latter reference is in fact to Canaan, Ham’s son (and Noah’s grandson), which in turn might justify Canaan’s curse (vv.25–27) as the consequence of his own deeds rather than those of his father. Bellini may have not been aware of such hermeneutical niceties, but his depiction does suggest that for him Ham as the ‘youngest son’ is not to be taken literally.

 

References

Arasse, Daniel. 1997. Le Sujet dans le tableau: Essais d'iconographie analytique (Paris: Flammarion)

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