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 https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2011/tableaux-anciens-et-du-xixe-sicle/lot.30.html [accessed 7 January 2020]
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.