Giovanni Bellini - The Drunkenness of Noah

by Alexandra Tuschka


Only Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives survived the Flood. It had rained for 40 days and nights and then took an additional 150 days for the water to sink into the earth. The ark, which was about 150 meters long, landed on Mount Ararat, which is located in the very east of what is now Turkey. After the exodus of the family and animals, Noah gave a sacrificial feast. God sent the rainbow as a sign of peace. 

The land where the family settled was fertile and so Noah also grew wine. One evening, however, he took one sip too many and fell asleep drunk. His son Ham noticed this and also that you could see his father's sex. It amused him and he got his brothers Japheth and Shem to make fun of it together. But these, out of respect for their father, refused to do so, did not look, and approached the old man backwards with a blanket. When Noah awoke the next day and learned of this, he cursed Ham and his son Canaan, who was thereupon to become the servant of the brothers. The son later gave rise to the Canaanite people. This one is considered theologically as the progenitor of the Africans. The other two sons, however, Noah blessed. Also these founded peoples: from Sem the Semites (Jews) came out and Japhet became progenitor of the Europeans. The three holy kings are supposed to embody these three tribes still today. Admittedly, this story was also ideologically abused to justify the enslavement and oppression of the African peoples, since the behavior of the progenitors justified the fate of the resulting peoples.


Noah is seen here naked, lying in a rather uncomfortable position across the entire picture background. Although he begot his sons still with 500 years and became 850 years old himself and thus reached a "biblical age", he is to be seen here very aged with white, long beard and slim body. It is also unusual that the artist here shows the sons facing their father. In numerous versions by other artists, Noah's upper body is clothed and the sons approach with his back turned. Grapes and an empty vessel are elements of the subject and gave the artist an opportunity to include still life elements. The empty vessel in front is a clear indication of the last, drunken night. 


Ham can be seen in the center, grinning and making room for himself, also directing the viewer's gaze. He seems to want to push the other brothers away, who protectively place the cloth over their father. Sem can be seen on the left, he is clearly older than his brothers and is already losing hair on the top of his head. Often, however, Ham - to embody the bad qualities - is depicted uglier than his brothers. Japhet, a good deal younger, looks demonstratively to the ground. Typologically, this episode corresponds to the mockery of Christ. The nakedness of Noah corresponds to the nakedness of the Savior, the wine to the wine of the Eucharist. 


The theme was particularly popular as a single scene in Mannerism. On the one hand, the different reactions of the sons lent themselves to the depiction of psychological contrasts; on the other hand, it had a piquant obscene character, which became picture-worthy for the canvas due to the basic biblical theme. 


Giovanni Bellini - The Drunkenness of Noah

Oil on canvas, 1515, 103 × 157 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie in Besançon