Over just a few lines, Genesis 9:11–17 reiterates four times the significance of the rainbow as signum foederis—the sign, or visible token, of the covenant between God and creation, and the reminder of His promise never again to destroy the earth by a flood. This is an image of extraordinary potency and delicacy. The rainbow is the most evanescent of atmospheric phenomena. Yet, of all things, God chose this diaphanous entity as the antidote against His wrath.
How do the artworks brought together in this exhibition relay the role of the rainbow as intermediary? How do they visualize the biblical image of an impalpable thing of light that protects the world from destruction?
The mosaic of San Marco is the most literal of the three renditions. Here, the apex of the rainbow touches a blue hemicycle that stands for the sky, while its end touches the ground near the lion of Venice, visually bridging earth and heaven.
In the Cappella Portinari the significance of the rainbow as intermediary between God and creation is expressed through sophisticated interactions between natural light, architecture, and painting. Sunlight—an enduring symbol of the divine—filters into the chapel through the lantern at the summit of the dome. The concentric bands of colour in the cupola, arranged around the lantern, visually manifest the divine origin of the rainbow. Hovering majestically above the beholder, the rainbow dome simultaneously conjures the biblical covenant and the radiance of God at the end of time. Thus, it encourages viewers to weave together Genesis and Revelation, and to reflect upon the reciprocity between divine power and mercy.
Finally, Dan Flavin’s installation immerses the faithful in densely coloured air—making them experience the transformative power of divine presence.
These artworks craftily exploit physical light, and its interaction with different artistic media and with architecture, to render the ephemeral and visually unstable nature of the rainbow. Mosaic is a highly reflective medium. It glitters when hit by light-rays, but becomes dim and lustreless in low lighting. Just as the rainbow appears in the sky when light pierces the clouds at their darkest, so the light of candles or sun beams brings the dazzling gold background of the mosaic of San Marco to life, and enlivens the image of the arc in it. The Cappella Portinari also significantly interacts with light. The fish-scale design of its dome diffuses natural light, creating a palpitating, misty visual effect that conjures the impalpability of the rainbow. Even more radically, Flavin’s installation changes with the seasonal cycle and according to the time of day. Barely perceptible in daylight, it becomes progressively more intense and saturated as natural light decreases. At nightfall, or on gloomy days, the church literally glows, almost a rainbow against dark skies.
While each of these artworks visually relates to the rainbow, and to the biblical passage that records its first appearance, they also work on other planes of meaning. Appropriately for the state church of Venice, the mosaic in the atrium of San Marco transforms the biblical episode into an implicit assertion of Venice’s myth of predestination: the idea that the city was especially favoured by God. The Cappella Portinari, built for a community of learned Dominicans, favoured an abstract ‘colour field’ over figural representations of the Scriptures. This visual device enabled the friars to exercise their theological knowledge, linking the narrative of divine goodwill and protection presented in Genesis with notions of divine judgement and ideas of beatific vision from Ezekiel and Revelation. Finally, Flavin’s work was installed in the parish church of a less affluent urban neighbourhood, and was intended for a mixed audience of clergy and laypeople. This installation is the most elusive of the three artworks. It offers a spectacular and overpowering manifestation of divine presence. Yet, it eschews univocal interpretation or direct associations with a scriptural passage. Instead, it alludes to a range of theological concepts that lie at the core of the Christian faith: the relationship between God and humankind, and between eternity and temporality; the proceedings of divine grace; and the connection between the Old Testament covenant mediated by the rainbow, and the new covenant mediated by Christ.
Together, these artworks manifest the fruitfulness and complexity that mark all interactions between the Scripture and the images that seek to relay its meaning. On the one hand, even the most literal visual rendition of the bible entails high degrees of interpretative freedom, inevitably transforming the text through specific aesthetic, social, and cultural lenses. On the other hand, the visual—enigmatic and open-ended by nature—is uniquely capable of manifesting the vinculum between what is visible and what cannot be seen, thus entering a fruitful dialogue with Scripture, and sharing in its revelatory power.
20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. 22While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
9 And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. 2The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. 3Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. 4Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. 5For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. 6Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image. 7And you, be fruitful and multiply, bring forth abundantly on the earth and multiply in it.”
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9“Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” 17God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”