Genesis 8:1–19

Out of the Ark

Commentaries by Mara Hofmann

Works of art by Master of the Munich Golden Legend, Simon de Myle and Unknown artist

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Master of the Munich Golden Legend

The Exit from the Ark, illumination from the Bedford Hours, c.1410–30, Illumination on parchment, 260 x 185 mm, The British Library, London; Additional 18850, fol. 16v., Photo: © The British Library Board

A New World in Miniature

Commentary by Mara Hofmann

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Read by Jennifer Sliwka

On Christmas Eve 1430, Anne of Burgundy, the wife of John, Duke of Bedford, presented this Book of Hours to her nine-year-old nephew Henry VI, who was staying with them at Rouen before his coronation in France. The cycle of full-page miniatures with Genesis scenes in a Book of Hours is unusual and was added in preparation of the gift to the young king.

Noah’s vessel, which resembles a large multi-storey wooden house, appears in the background within the receding waters and stands in stark contrast to the tiny emerging islands topped with minute cities. A multitude of dead bodies are floating around. The animals (most of them are not shown in pairs) emerge from the ark onto a large piece of land to the right.

While Noah appears in the background in prayer before a burning offering that is blessed by the hand of God, his wife remains inside the ark helping the animals to make their exit. The raven which Noah released to look for land and which flew back and forth appears on the small island in the waters towards the left, devouring a dead, bloodstained body. The dove which Noah released three times is shown with the olive branch with which it returned after it was released the second time; it did not return third time round when it found dry land.

Finally, the exit from the ark is combined with Noah’s drunkenness. In the foreground we can see the wine that Noah made and imbibed after the great flood. While one of Noah’s sons squashes the grapes in the tub with his feet, Ham reveals Noah’s disgrace and a third son covers the patriarch’s exposed underwear which alludes to his nakedness.

The explanatory caption in blue ink in the lower margin is written in French rather than in Latin and serves as an educational tool: Comment noel apres le deluge arriva a terre et mist hors le bestail et fist sacrifice et planta la vigne (‘How Noah, after the Flood, arrived on land and put the animals out and made a sacrifice and planted the vine’).

The ark’s gate, now pulled down, has changed from being a barrier to being a bridge—a bridge to an entire new world. The ark-dwellers move from darkness into light: a fitting theme for a Christmas gift.



König, Eberhard. 2007. The Bedford Hours: The Making of a Medieval Masterpiece, trans. by Christopher de Hamel (London: The British Library), esp. pp. 57–61 and 85–86

Spencer, Eleanor P. 1965. ‘The Master of the Duke of Bedford: The Bedford Hours’, Burlington Magazine 107: 495–502

Simon de Myle

Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat, 1570, Oil on panel, 114 x 142 cm, Private Collection; Photo: Private Collection / Bridgeman Images

Life in Abundance

Commentary by Mara Hofmann

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Read by Jennifer Sliwka

This is the only known signed work by Simon de Myle and only a little is known about his life. His style is typical for Flemish Mannerism, although his career may perhaps be linked to the French school of Fontainebleau. The painting is remarkable for the quality and the originality of its composition which the artist signed as ‘inventor’.

Noah’s ark, a giant wooden ship, rests in a vast rocky landscape, the mountains of Ararat. Pairs of animals make their exit over an elaborate L-shaped ramp while a multitude of other animals fill the earth and sky. Noah, his wife, his three sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, as well as their wives, are all depicted in the painting. Most prominent are the two seated women in the foreground; rapidly decreasing in scale, Noah and one of his sons appear at the end of the ramp; the two other sons busy themselves to help disembark the animals; while the two other wives are placed further in the landscape, pointing to the animals.

An incredible variety of different species of animals is portrayed, from massive elephants to tiny mice. One animal that attracts specific attention is the large rhinoceros to the right. It is inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s engraving from 1515 showing the rhinoceros presented by the Sultan of Cambay as a gift to King Manuel I of Portugal.

Although the artist was seeking to depict the animals as realistically as possible, he also included some purely mythical beasts. According to Eric Mickler, an expert in natural history, people at that time truly believed in the existence of dragons, griffins, and unicorns which is why these appear here. However, according to legend, the unicorn had refused Noah’s invitation to enter the ark because it felt strong enough to survive the deluge alone. It swam for forty days but on the last day, when the waters began to recede, an eagle landed on its horn and because of the weight of the bird the exhausted unicorn drowned.

Simon de Myle, however, has included the unicorn in his painting, making the work an even fuller celebration of the abundance and multiplicity of this ‘second creation’:

Bring forth with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—that they may breed abundantly on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply upon the earth. (Genesis 8:17)



Sotheby’s, Tableaux Anciens et du XIXe siècle, Paris, 23 June 2011, lot 30, available at [accessed 7 January 2020]


Unknown artist

The Flood; Unloading the Ark; Noah's offering, from the south barrel vault, west narthex, 1215–35, Mosaic, Basilica di San Marco, Venice; Peter Barritt / Alamy Stock Photo

Begin Again

Commentary by Mara Hofmann

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Read by Jennifer Sliwka

St Mark's Basilica in Venice is one of the finest examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture and most famous for its gold ground mosaics. The Atrium is decorated with Old Testament stories that are carefully labelled with Latin inscriptions.

It has long been recognized that many of these compositions were based on a richly illuminated fifth- or sixth-century Greek luxury copy of the book of Genesis: the Cotton Genesis. Now in the British Library, it was probably made in Egypt, and reached Venice in the first years of the thirteenth century.

The barrel vaults reserved for Noah’s story offer large rectangular picture fields that are arranged into three horizontal stripes, each providing space for up to six scenes. The vault on the east side begins with a representation of the flood (Genesis 7:17), with rain falling down like a curtain and a multitude of corpses floating in the water.

The raven and dove episodes are condensed into two scenes (Genesis 8:6–8). Noah is shown at the window of the ark, in his first act of sending out the dove which he holds in his outstretched arms. The sending forth of the raven is omitted but the artist shows the bird picking at a floating carcass. (Early Christian exegetes explained the non-return of the bird to the ark by the fact that—unlike the dove—the raven was able to sustain itself on the corpses of those who had died as a result of the flood, highlighting the raven’s status as an ‘unclean’ animal; Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 26.12; Bede, Homily 1.12). The subsequent scene depicts the return of the dove after the second sending (Genesis 8:11), holding an olive branch in its beak. Noah leans out of the window of the ark to receive it.

The next image extends into the lower register and is twice the size of the other scenes. It shows Noah and his family with the animals leaving the ark (Genesis 8:18–19). The ark itself stands on two mountain peaks, indicating that the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat (Genesis 8:4). Noah is helping the lions to leave the ark while pairs of leopards, lynxes, bear, deer, and hares are running around freely in the rocky landscape. The colourful rainbow refers to the covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:13), that follows the sacrifice (Genesis 8:20) shown in the scene next to it.

It is a moment of hope. Even the ‘unclean’ raven will have an important place in this newly-cleansed world.



Demus, Otto. 1984. The Mosaics of San Marco in Venice, 2 vols (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Hill, Robert C. (Trans.). 2001. Saint John Chrysostom: Homilies on Genesis 18–45 (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press)

Kessler, Herbert L. 2014. ‘Thirteenth-Century Venetian Revisions of the Cotton Genesis Cycle’, in The Atrium of San Marco in Venice: The Genesis and Medieval Reality of the Genesis Mosaics, ed. by Martin Büchsel, Herbert L. Kessler, and Rebecca Müller, pp. 75–94

Martin, Lawrence T. and Dom David Hurst (Trans). 1991. Bede the Venerable: Homilies on the Gospels, 2 vols (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications)

Master of the Munich Golden Legend :

The Exit from the Ark, illumination from the Bedford Hours, c.1410–30 , Illumination on parchment

Simon de Myle :

Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat, 1570 , Oil on panel

Unknown artist :

The Flood; Unloading the Ark; Noah's offering, from the south barrel vault, west narthex, 1215–35 , Mosaic

Marking the Disembarking

Comparative commentary by Mara Hofmann

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Read by Jennifer Sliwka

Noah’s ark counts among the best-known stories of the Bible and has also lent inspiration to many picture books and children’s toys.

Genesis 6–9 tells how humanity’s increasing disobedience caused God to reassert his lordship by engineering a fresh start that would give the human race a new opportunity. The great flood ended all life on earth except for that of Noah, his family, and the animals they had gathered, representing the new life that would repopulate the earth.

A focus on the exit from Noah’s ark as a topic on its own is relatively rare. Preference was usually given by artists and patrons to the construction of the ark, the entrance of the animals into the ark, the flood, or the drunkenness of Noah.

The Genesis mosaics in St Mark's Basilica in Venice are based on the British Library Cotton Genesis, a richly illuminated fifth- or sixth-century Greek luxury copy of the book of Genesis, most of whose 400 pages were destroyed by fire in 1731. The isolation of the text of Genesis within a single volume was remarkable in itself, and the manuscript experiments innovatively with the possibilities of book illustration by so closely following the narrative structure of the text. In the Cotton Genesis, every phase of the raven and dove episodes, for instance, was depicted and arranged across four picture frames. In San Marco, this episode is condensed into two picture units: Noah’s first release of the dove (while a raven picks at a corpse), and its return following its second release with an olive branch in its beak. The linear structure of the manuscript that parallels the text is replaced by the combination of the most meaningful elements of the narrative (for example, contrasts—which are central to Genesis—between clean and unclean, obedient and disobedient). The mosaic panel with the exit from the ark, twice the size of the others, conflates several scenes that were depicted in the manuscript individually.

The non-linear selective sequencing of episodes from Genesis also determines the artistic solution of the Master of the Munich Golden Legend. In his cycle of full-page miniatures from Genesis, the exit from Noah’s ark is combined with Noah’s drunkenness and follows a full-page miniature of the building of Noah’s ark. References are also made to the devastating flood and the receding waters by including floating dead bodies and tiny cities emerging from the water on mountain tops. The raven picking at a carcass and the dove returning to the ark are also included, even though almost inconspicuously. In a single image, the miniature details the entire biblical episode.

The exit from Noah’s ark usually forms part of a more complex narrative. In this respect, the conception of Simon de Myle’s painting is fundamentally different. The originality of his design lies in his non-narrative approach, where he eliminates other elements that usually refer to previous and succeeding episodes from the Noah story. In De Myle’s painting, the disembarkation of animals from the ark after its running aground on Ararat provides a pretext for the portrayal of diverse animal species on earth. The artist was clearly most interested in depicting the animals as realistically as possible. It is unlikely that De Myle was unaware of the popular legend that the unicorn had refused Noah's invitation to enter the ark. Rather, he makes it his main concern to depict the largest possible variety of animals known to him.

Thus, the three works selected here are representative of different approaches to the Noah story.

The mosaics in St Mark’s Basilica exemplify the partial reversal of the Cotton Genesis’s unusual experiment in closely following the structure of the biblical text by creating a multitude of images relating to the same story.

The miniature including the exit from Noah’s ark from the Genesis picture cycle in the Bedford Hours displays the skilful organisation of consecutive details in one single simultaneous image. While the general aesthetic of the image prevails, the ‘reading’ of individual elements in the image recalls the detailed narrative of the story—although the artistic integration of these elements in one single harmonious image remains its priority.

The unusual isolation of the exit from Noah’s ark by De Myle in one single independent image is the product of an eventual shift of interest, from the biblical narrative to the study of natural history in the sixteenth century.

John Chrysostom wrote that creation’s ‘countenance was made resplendent’ following the cleansing of the flood (Homilies on Genesis 20.16). All three images in this exhibition convey a sense of splendour and abundance as the artists delight in the depiction of various animal species, and anticipate the command which will begin the chapter that follows: ‘be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth’ (Genesis 9:1).



Hill, Robert C. (Trans.). 2001. Saint John Chrysostom: Homilies on Genesis 18–45 (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press)

Next exhibition: Genesis 8:20-32

Genesis 8:1–19

Revised Standard Version

8 But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; 2the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, 3and the waters receded from the earth continually. At the end of a hundred and fifty days the waters had abated; 4and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest upon the mountains of Arʹarat. 5And the waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen.

6 At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made, 7and sent forth a raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. 8Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; 9but the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put forth his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him. 10He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; 11and the dove came back to him in the evening, and lo, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12Then he waited another seven days, and sent forth the dove; and she did not return to him any more.

13 In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dry. 14In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. 15Then God said to Noah, 16“Go forth from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. 17Bring forth with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—that they may breed abundantly on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.” 18So Noah went forth, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him. 19And every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves upon the earth, went forth by families out of the ark.