Noah’s Ark, Part 1

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September 8, 2012 by Gail Armstrong

There are certain scenes that recur in illuminated manuscripts that I love to ‘collect and compare’.  One of these is the story of Noah’s Ark.  This archetypal story of destruction and rebirth recurs, I’m told, in various forms in mythologies throughout the world.  Similarly, the Genesis account recurs in a multitude of manuscript representations.

When I come upon a new digitized collection, one of the first searches I do is “Noah’s Ark”, and invariably I discover a new assortment of images of the man, his boat and his assortment of animals.  Here are a few of my favourites.  (Notice I’ve called this post “Part 1” – because I’ve encountered so many delightful  representations, I couldn’t possibly include them all here.  There will be sequels!)

1. This one appeals to me because of the realism with which the ark is painted, and because of the looks of calm shared by Noah, his wife and the animals we glimpse through the windows.  I also love the little caged window Noah has built for the birds up above.  This scene seems to be set at the height of the crisis – the rain has fallen, the water is at its highest, but no sign yet of the dove or of mountaintops.  (Note:  if you click through to the originals, you can enlarge them to see greater detail.)

Noah's ark

Source:  Bible historiale (vol. 1), Guiart des Moulins – Paris, between 1402 and 1404

2. This one shows two stages of the story:  the ark being loaded with its pairs of people and creatures, then the sealed-tight boat at the height of the storm.  I love here the variety of the birds depicted – this artist seems to have been more a bird lover (or better at painting them?) than an animal lover.  In the second scene, the roiling waves capture the violence of the storm very nicely – and if you click through to the enlarged image, you will see drowned figures hazy beneath the waves…nice touch!

The Ark

Source:  Old Testament – Regensburg, Germany, 1465

3. This scene shows the end of the storm.  Trees are starting to flourish again – but notice the demon still going to town on the unfortunates who missed the boat!  This is the only image I recall seeing that depicts innocent animals and birds killed by the deluge as well as wicked people…  I also like the way this single ‘frame’ manages to depict both the dove being sent on its way (on the left side) and its triumphant return with its olive branch (on the right).

Noah and the Ark

Source:  The Queen Mary Psalter – London/Westminster or East Anglia, between 1310 and 1320

4.  Here’s a miniature that shows a crowded, and charmingly Gothic-looking ark…I particularly like the animal-head prow and stern of the boat, and the expressive touches in some of the faces.  Noah’s wife, for example, looks vaguely aggravated (with good reason?), and the owl looks distinctly unhappy (forbidden to eat the mice on board, perhaps??).

Noah and the ark

Source:  Compendium Historiae in Genealogia Christi, Peter of Poitiers – England, 2nd half of the 13th century

5. And finally, here is one of Noah building the ark.  When I look at this one, it looks to me like the lord almighty has ripped through a nicely-patterned curtain, for nothing more than a friendly chat with a distinctly unruffled Noah.  Judging by the state of the ark – more like a rowboat – and the fact that he has an axe in his hand, with no lumber in sight, I imagine the almighty may be pointing out the need for a second storey.  Nice touches:  the slender, flower-like tree to the left of Noah, and the lovely water-wavey blue border around the frame.


Source:  Bible historiale complétée moyenne (the ‘Bible Historiale of John the Good’), Guyart des Moulins – Paris, circa 1350 (before 1356)

That’s it for today, but more Noah to come!


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