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)
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.