The last painting in the final triad of the ceiling’s narrative frescoes is The Drunkenness of Noah. The picture is a lesson in human frailty, and a meditation on the mysterious workings of God. At first glance it might appear to be one of the most backward-looking of Michelangelo’s compositions. But in fact it is a highly inventive, unusual picture, pregnant with possibility for future generations of artists.
As in the narrative paintings of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, the painting breaks with the unities of time, place and action to tell its story like a comic strip, with the same protagonist shown in two different situations at two different moments in time. To the left, the red-robed Noah sets to with his spade, working the land that God has spared from the Flood, and has blessed with fertility: `And Noah began to be an husbandman; and he planted a vineyard’ (Genesis 9: 20). He is silhouetted against a harsh white sky and confronted with an expanse of yellow ochre ground that seems so harsh and desert-like that his spade barely penetrates its surface. In this particular passage of the painting, Michelangelo proposes an image as simple and emblematic as a piece of heraldry, as schematic as the impresa on a Renaissance shield or flag — a rugged symbol of the lot of man after the Fall, doomed to a life of hard labor.
To the right, Noah appears again. But this time he is naked, no longer the righteous patriarch but an all too mortal man, who has indulged too much in the wine that his vineyard has produced: `And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent’ (Genesis 9: 21). He reclines in a stupor, his head sunk upon his chest. He appears as another of Michelangelo’s parodies of the figure of an ancient Roman river god, like the petrified boy hunched over the wine cask in The Deluge. His sons, Ham, Shem and Japheth, shocked by the sudden apparition of their inebriated father, gesticulate and prepare to cover his nakedness.
This troubling, dreamlike picture is susceptible to different levels of interpretation. Within traditional Christian theology, its message was one of hope, since throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance this episode was seen as one among many Old Testament stories in which was prophesied — as through a glass, darkly — the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. Like Christ, Noah was stripped bare and humiliated in the eyes of mankind. The torpor of Noah’s drunkenness was, symbolically, a small death, foreshadowing the death of Christ on the Cross. Noah’s drunkenness was also held to prefigure Christ’s Passion, in that while Noah seeded the vine and drank of its fruit, Christ said, `I am the true vine, – and my Father is the husbandman’ (John 15:1) — a sacrifice commemorated daily at Mass, in the wine of the Eucharist.
Michelangelo reinforces those ancient associations by placing a pitcher at the end of the hard wooden bed on which Noah has collapsed. A clay wine cup is at his side, as if to suggest the blood that will course from the wound in Christ’s side when he is crucified on the Cross. This allusion would not have been lost on Michelangelo’s contemporaries, familiar as they were with images of the Crucifixion in which angels descend from heaven, bearing goblets in which to catch the precious drops seeping from Christ’s wounds (a well-known example is the so-called Mond Crucifixion in the National Gallery, painted by Michelangelo’s contemporary Raphael).
Yet Michelangelo complicates his vision of The Drunkenness of Noah, adding and inventing elements that are entirely his own to impart a deeper structure of meanings to the scene. The broader pattern of images on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which creates an interlocking network of symbols and allusions — like themes repeated and varied in musical composition — instantly imparts a dark and penitential note to this image of an unregenerate drunkard shamed before his sons. Joel, the prophet enthroned immediately to the left of the scene, had railed against the sinfulness jr of those who fall into inebriation: `Awake, ye drunkards, and weep; and howl all ye drinkers of wine’ (Joel 1:5).
Moreover, the all-encompassing symmetry of the nine narrative panels on the main vault invites the viewer to see The Drunkenness of Noah, the very last image, as a pair with the very first, The Separation of Light and Darkness. The contrast is striking and severe, its effect like that of a scything caesura in poetry. On one side, the all-powerful God reaches up with a majestic gesture to bring light from the darkness — and, by implication, to wrestle good from evil; on the other, a mere man lies slumped ignominiously in the den of his own sinfulness, impelled, despite himself, to repeat the error of Adam’s Fall.
The Drunkenness of Noah is a work that shows how deeply Michelangelo responded to the compressed, laconic and enigmatic style of Old Testament epic. The artist may not be inclined to dwell on the particularities of specific human emotions — he stands, in this regard, at the opposite end of the spectrum to a painter such as Rembrandt, or a sculptor such as Donatello — yet he has his own deep sense of humanity. In painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo did not only reflect on the Book of Genesis, digest its meanings and ponder the detail of its stories. He expressed, with terrible poignancy, the predicament of those who are created and controlled by the veiled God of the ancient Hebraic tradition. They live under the perpetual threat of self-alienation and cannot help becoming other than they once were.
It is the lot of every great figure of the Old Testament, from Adam onwards, to follow God’s will and to embody his purposes as best they can, but in doing so they often find themselves terrifyingly helpless — uniquely helpless, by comparison with the heroes encountered in any of the world’s other epic literary traditions. The God of the Old Testament not only sends them challenges and trials of unfathomable mystery (the instruction to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac; the myriad ills heaped on the head of Job). He also changes them, within themselves, within their very beings, in ways that are equally beyond their comprehension and power to predict.
This aspect of the Old Testament stories was perceptively analyzed by the German literary. critic Eric Auerbach in an essay entitled `Odysseus’s Scar’.” Auerbach, whose method was comparative, believed the particular qualities of biblical narrative were thrown into sharp relief by the counter-example of Greek epic. In particular, he drew a series of telling contrasts between the heroes of the Hebraic tradition and those of the Homeric legends. The heroes of Homer, he noted, change little. They are people whose `destiny is clearly defined and who wake every morning as though it were the first day of their lives: their emotions, though strong, are simple and find expression instantly’.
But those who play their part in the stories of the Old Testament are different. They are more inward and variable, more cloaked, even to themselves. They are separated in time and place, horizontally distant from one another but joined by their vertical connection to God — a God whom they know they must serve, but whose purposes are hidden from them. Life, for them, is the painful process of discovering what lies in store. `The stern hand of God is ever upon the Old Testament figures; he has not only made them once and for all and chosen them, but he continues to work upon them, bends them and kneads them, and, without destroying them in essence, produces from them forms which their youth gave no grounds for anticipating.‘
This is Michelangelo’s theme in The Drunkenness of Noah. An Old Testament hero succumbs to a great transformation, realized in the forms and colors of a vivid nightmare. The artist has created an image that seems to externalize the hero’s awareness of his own complexity — making visible, so to speak, the dark thoughts that are present only as a shadow across the face of his carved David.
Noah could be dreaming the scene of his own humiliation, such is the hallucinogenic power of Michelangelo’s representation of the scene. The artist paints it as a phantasmagoria, lends it a quality of inward vision found nowhere else in the world of his time, save perhaps in that hauntingly weird fifteenth-century prose romance, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a work of fiction by the Dominican friar Francesco Colonna, quite probably known to Michelangelo, in which the hero progresses through a landscape of architectural and sculptural dream imagery that feels like a projection of his own thoughts and fantasies.
Once more, the depth of Michelangelo’s originality can be measured by the extent to which he departed both from the literal Genesis narrative and from established visual convention. Earlier artists had shown Noah drunk among his vines, which they usually imagined as a form of leafy arbour. By contrast, Michelangelo places him inside a wooden shed so dark it might be a cellar. Objects in this space assume the characteristics of things seen in dreams, being either over-scaled or unnaturally clear and distinct from one another. The wine vat behind Noah looms ominously while the bowl and pitcher beside him are held in a light that gives them a trembling, oneiric particularity. These are effects that anticipate, by some five hundred years, those found in the `metaphysical’ paintings of Giorgio de’ Chirico and the dreamlike art of the Surrealists.
In the Book of Genesis, Noah is discovered in his drunken state by his son Ham, who fetches his brothers Shem and Japheth: `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.’ But in Michelangelo’s painting, these relationships are all changed. The three sons confront their father’s nakedness together. None faces backward and none is allowed to escape the shock of the encounter. .’
The sight of their father is like an apparition, an image from out of the dark. As Charles de Tolnay noted, Noah is `like a marble statue placed on a temporary wooden base’. He might almost be a sculpture that they have excavated from the ground — like the antique sculpture of the struggling Laocoon and his sons, doomed by the Greek gods to die wrapped in the coils of serpents, that Michelangelo himself had witnessed being excavated in Rome in January 1506, two years before he painted this picture.
The memory of the Laocoön, a work that made a deep and lasting impression on Michelangelo, seems embedded in this painting, which also joins a father with his sons in a moment of crisis and pain. Even the draperies that play about the figures have a writhing, serpentine quality.
Whereas the Bible implies that Noah’s sons themselves are clothed — which was how earlier artists had envisaged the scene — Michelangelo paints them as nudes, just like their father, giving them merely token robes that do nothing to obscure them. This is a daring invention, epitomizing his bold habit of transforming the conventions of religious art, bending them to purposes and meanings that evade purely theological analysis. The young men’s upright, athletic and muscular bodies, lit by an irregular play of lights and darks, as though by the flare of lamplight, contrast cruelly with Noah’s slack and slumped form. The image is an archetype of that moment, late in the father-son relationship, when the child must take on the role of parent because the parent, enfeebled, has become a kind of child. It can also be seen as a metaphor for the sudden, shocking recognition of death as an ineluctable fact of human existence.
Seeing their father like this confronts the sons with their own mortality and mutability — that mutability which, within the scheme of the Old Testament stories, governs all of life in the postlapsarian world. As he is now, so they will become. Their powerlessness to change that fact is emphasized by the inadequate flimsiness of the wisp-like drapery with which they have been furnished. The sons cannot cover their father’s shame and they reflect his vulnerability in their own uncovered state. Man is always naked before God.