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