April 10, 2019
A drunken Noah is discovered naked by his sons
DRUNKENNESS OF NOAH, after restoration)
Giovanni Bellini (bef. ca. 1426-1516)
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon, France
An old man sleeps naked. A cup and a bunch of grapes are presented in the foreground. A vine is in the background. As these three elements represent wine, it is likely that this man is drunk. The sleeping man is Noah. He is surrounded by his three sons, Ham in the middle and Shem and Japhet on either side. Shem and Japhet are good sons who show respect for their father by looking away as they cover his nakedness. Ham, meanwhile, mocks Noah – an act that causes him and his descendants, the Canaanites, to be cursed (see Bible text below).
Old Testament themes often prefigure those of the New Testament. Ham’s mockery of his father may make us think of the Roman soldiers’ humiliation of Christ. But this episode also marks the invention of wine – which, with bread, was to become a central part of the Eucharist.
A few years earlier (1508-1509), Michelangelo used this same scene to illustrate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Bellini’s representation of the scene differs from that of Michelangelo, however: it seems profane and naturalistic compared to the antique style of the Vatican fresco. This episode – the first Bible story to mention wine – had been relatively neglected by artists, but was pulled out of obscurity after the start of the 16th century.
1447-1448 - Green Cloister, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy
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Old Testament, Genesis 9:20-25
"And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren."
The inventor of wine discovers the drawbacks of excess. For Christians, it would take the coming of Christ to erase the shame of the drunkenness of mankind’s first patriarch.