The ways in which the story of Noah’s Ark can be (and has been) interpreted, vary greatly. Most commonly, it is construed as a warning message, demonstrating the retribution both sinners and worshippers face if they fail to adhere to God’s laws. However, the narrative, rich in symbolism, has been credited with numerous other meanings, inspiring artists to visualise their own take on the story for many centuries.
The motivation to portray the story of the ark could differ from arousing fear in the worshippers to a more positive outlook: to rejoice in the positive aspects of the biblical story. An example of this rejoicing is found in Jan Brueghel’s vivid painting of nature’s wonders, in which he invites the viewer to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation. In general, the entering of the animals into the ark resulted in images portraying as many animals as possible, as seen in paintings of Edward Hicks, Francesco Bassano and Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione.
In some cases (like Brueghel’s), these paintings were part of the positive celebration that was typical for the Catholic Counter-Reformation. During this period, the church was seen as the only salvation, making the ark incredibly relevant as a metaphor for the church. The people in the church were saved, just like the people and animals on the ark. In many paintings, the ark was a popular symbol for the church and Noah the prefiguration of Christ.
Interlinked with the motivation of arousing fear, is the theme of retribution. At the base of all religious flood stories is human misconduct, which unleashes the wrath of a supreme being. The deluge serves as a godly punishment and also represents the cleansing of sins. There are many paintings that feature the ark in the background, in order to draw the attention to the sinners in the foreground, whose punishment is death.
Rebirth, renewal and creation
After retribution comes the possibility of starting over. Therefore, the story of Noah’s Ark symbolises rebirth or renewal. The notion of retribution and renewal served as the basis for a grimmer outlook on the myth. This type of serious, or even cruel, portrayal of the deluge can be found on paintings by very different artists, such as Michelangelo, Hieronymus Bosch, Jan Nagel, Poussin and Gustave Doré.
The idea of starting over reminds us of the initial start: God’s creation of the world. The story of Noah’s Ark signifies a do-over, a second creation. This is illustrated in the biblical text. As the floodwaters subside, the dry earth is emphasised: “By the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry. By the twenty-seventh day of the second month, the earth was completely dry.” (Genesis VIII: 13-14) That same ritual is emphasised in the text covering the original creation: “And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis I: 9-10)
The water washing over the earth is seen as a cleansing or baptism, with the ark representing the church, and the story of the deluge symbolising a rebirth. Baptising is referred to as the salvation of the Christian people, as the ark also was the salvation of the (Christian) people.
The end of the world
The apocalyptic seascape (the actual flood) is either portrayed as a desperate landscape of drowning people and animals (Jan Nagel and Francis Danby), or as a treacherous seascape with wild waters (John Martin). There are many more paintings like these, all from different times and made with different motives.
The drowning people of course have a highly dramatic effect and, again, emphasise the retribution, but also the devastation of this merciless ending for a large part of the human population. Both type of paintings show that the deluge was irreversible and complete. They also refer to the relationship between humans and water, which has been ambiguous from the beginning of times; dangerous on one hand, and a blessing on the other.
The dove returning to the ark with an olive branch as proof that the earth had begun to dry, was a sign that God had not abandoned people. The image of the dove carrying the branch in its beak became a motive of its own. From early Christianity until modern times, it has remained a popular symbol for peace, signifying the end of destruction.
Throughout the world, the word ‘ark’ has become a synonym for a safe harbour. The context of salvation and the church has been cast aside, and the ark transformed into a more common concept of a safe place.
In the 1950s, President Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia, built a bunker to keep the ruling class safe in case of a nuclear attack. He named the bunker ‘ARK’. The project took 26 years, cost almost three billion Euros and was finally completed only a year before Tito’s death. The bunker could allow up to 350 people living and working for about six months. The bunker is now a contemporary art gallery.
Another type of bunker, the vault that harbours all the seeds in the world, received the nicknames ‘Food Ark’ and ‘Noah’s Ark’. The vault can be found on the Island Spitsbergen and is situated inside an old coalmine.