|Drunkenness of Noah by Giovanni Bellini (c.1515)|
I found the painting riveting and disturbing. It inspired me to study up on the event, which is recorded in Genesis 9:20-23. Apparently after surviving the mass extinction of mankind because God had decided His creation was too evil and decided to destroy it -- all but Noah and his family, and the animals -- one of Noah's sons, Ham, started the whole thing up again.
Noah gets drunk and passes out, naked in his tent. Ham sees the naked Noah, and dashes out to find his two older brothers, Japheth and Shem, who bring a garment to cover their father while averting their eyes. Ham, however, thinks the whole scene is hilarious. Noah comes out of his drunken stupor and learns what his youngest son had done to him. Noah then curses his own grandson, Ham's son, Canaan, declaring that he shall be the lowest of slaves to his brothers.
All sorts of Biblical scholars have all sorts of theories about what this means. Did Ham sodomize his father in order to become the alpha male of the family? Did he castrate him? Or did he just think seeing his father naked was funny? And why did Noah curse Canaan, not Ham? If Noah and his family were the best bunch of humans that God could find to save mankind, it really makes you wonder what evil-doings the rest of humanity was up to!
The passage takes place right after God makes the rainbow covenant and the family exists the ark:
[9:18] The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan.
[9:19] These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled.
[9:20] Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.
[9:21] He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent.
[9:22] And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside.
[9:23] Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father's nakedness.
[9:24] When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him,
[9:25] he said, "Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers."
[9:26] He also said, "Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.
[9:27] May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave."
[9:28] After the flood Noah lived three hundred fifty years.
[9:29] All the days of Noah were nine hundred fifty years; and he died.
According to the press notes, "This family drama is interpreted as the reinstatement of a hierarchical order among the survivors of the purifying flood, the cause of and justification for inequality among the descendants of the three sons."
The Bible says all the people of the earth descended from Noah's three sons. Biblical scholars disagree about almost everything, even the order of birth of the sons, but very simply, Shem was the father of the Semitic people, the people of Asia; Japheth was the father of the Japhetic people, the people of Europe; and Ham was the father of the Hamitic people of Africa. Throughout history, Noah's curse on Canaan was used to justify slavery.
|Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie© Jean-Louis Dousson, Ville de Besançon|
Even though Bellini was very old, he assimilated the revolution of the younger painters in the Venice at the time, particularly his pupil Giorgione, who had died young in 1510. The Drunkenness of Noah was a rare theme, and the only one from the Old Testament to inspire the elderly master.
A Masterpiece for Venice: The Drunkenness of Noah is the first project in a series this year that celebrates the 500th anniversary of the death of Giovanni Bellini, and can be seen in the Salle delle Quattro Porte inside the Correr Museum, where it is on loan from the Musée des Beaux-Arts until June 18.
UPDATE August 2, 2016 - The Drunkenness of Noah is now part of the Venice, the Jews and Europe 1516-2016 exhibition currently running in the Doge's Apartments at Palazzo Ducale through November 13, 2016. Thank you to reader Rudement for pointing that out, and for the fascinating theory that, perhaps, Bellini was inspired to paint the controversial subject by the three younger painters nipping at his heels, Giorgione, Sebastiano and Titian. (See the discussion in the comments, below.)
Ciao from Venezia,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog