The Flood; unloading the Ark; Noah's offering from the south barrel vault, west narthex by Unknown artist

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

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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 (see https://thevcs.org/prophet-elijah-wilderness).

 

References

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)


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