14 June, 2006

22. The Drunkenness of Noah

Genesis:9.20 - And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard.
Genesis:9.21 - And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.

So goes the biblical story of Noah after he survived the flood, but who could blame Noah for sinking a few vinos after what he had just been through? His son Ham obviously did blame him, because he saw his father when he was legless and naked and did nothing to help him, but his two other sons, Shem and Japheth, covered him up – averting their eyes as they did so, naturally. When Noah sobered up, he cursed Ham, and rewarded the other two.

This extraordinary and remarkably finely detailed Gothic sculpture from about 1350 is on the south east corner of the Doge's Palace, facing the lagoon on one side and the canal that goes under the Bridge of Sighs on the other. It is a curiously human piece of sculpture for a religious subject, but then it is a very human story.

Noah, on one side of the central grapevine trunk is standing in a loose loin cloth with his eyes shut, and he is leaning at a precarious angle. In one hand he is spilling some liquid from a shell or gourd, with the other he is reaching out to the vine with his hand on a bunch of grapes. Whether he is looking for support, or for more fermented fruit juice, we don't know, but there is no doubt that the old man is in a sorry condition, and about to fall over.

On the other side of the vine are two of his sons, probably Shem and Japheth (the third, Ham, is on his own on the other side of the canal side arch). One son is gesturing impatiently at Noah as if to say "Look at the old man – trashed again!", and the other, who is hanging on to Noah's loincloth to keep him vaguely upright, is gesturing back "Calm down, it's OK, I've got him".

Supposedly symbolizing 'the frailty of man', I think the story is a fine advertisement for the life-preserving properties of wine, because this is how the bible chapter ends:

Genesis: 9.28 – And Noah lived after the flood three hundred and fifty years.
Genesis: 9.29 – And all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years: and he died.


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