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The Ark of Noah

The stories of the flood and the ark of Noah are known by everyone. We show a picture of the theme of the ark by Jacopo Bassano.

The Animals enter the Ark of Noah

Jacopo Bassano (1510-1592). Museo del Prado – Madrid. 1590.

Cardinal Federico Borromeo of Milan was a Maecenas of Jan Brueghel the Elder. He also bought pictures of a Venetian artist Jacopo da Ponte, whom he knew as a good animal painter. Jacopo da Ponte was called Bassano after the town where he was born. Jacopo Bassano had first learned his art with his father, Francesco the Elder who had a workshop in Bassano. Jacopo further trained in Venice with Bonifacio Veronese, but he did not stay in Venice. He returned to Bassano so that the workshop founded by his father continued in a school. After Jacopo, his own sons Francesco the Younger and Leandro maintained the workshop so that like the Brueghel family in Flanders a family tradition lasted for three generations in Bassano.

Bassano lies close to Venice. The Venetian sixteenth century was the era of the great master Titian, but Jacopo Bassano was with Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594) and Paolo Veronese (ca. 1528-1588) one of Venice’s major painters. Titian was the artist of Emperors and Popes, Tintoretto and Veronese were decorating the Venetian palaces. Jacopo da Ponte stayed in more rural Bassano. Like Pieter Bruegel the Elder he first sought his subjects among peasants, nature and animals and his sons perpetuated this genre. Tintoretto and Veronese emphasised the splendid monumentality of Venetian grandeur; Bassano painted people with not less refinement. He put shepherds in the foreground and even the Kings of his religious scenes have the earthiness of the Venetian countryside. Bassano used fewer figures, centred more on the aspect of human feelings and felt nearer to the actors of his themes. Bassano used the red ochre of the soil and the soft greens of the pastures. He started in an own style, then turned Mannerist and painted elongated figures in harsher colours, in redder ochre and more acid green. Then after 1560 he succumbed to the fashion of the grand Venetian scenes of Tintoretto and Veronese.

‘The Animals entering the Ark’ is a good example of Jacopo Bassano’s mature art. Noah and his helpers are leading pairs of animals into the boat. The ark is painted in the darkness of the first heavy clouds that God is sending for the Deluge. Only a long entry to the door is seen, over which the animals go into the Ark. Jacopo Bassano studied these animals closely so that all are depicted in a very lively and detailed way. Noah is shown as the great wizard that manages and conjures all the animals in. The ark’s entry plank forms an oblique line to the higher left of the painting, whereas the animals form a line that equally obliquely starts down on the left and then rises to the right. Slanting lines always induce a sense of movement. Bassano uses this style element here also, long before Caravaggio would exploit it to its fullest. In the darkness of the coming disaster fly the frantic birds that sense the bad weather. The leaves of the trees move in the first winds. Noah has to hurry, so he is all action and energetically waves his arms. The animals stand out in the brown colours. Bassano painted in extra patches of light to accentuate the line of the animals and he added animals in white at regular intervals such as a white dog and a white horse. This was a painter who mastered light and darkness as well as Tintoretto.

Bassano was a precursor of the dramatic use of the contrast of light and darkness and in this late painting – it dates from around 1590, while Bassano died in 1592 – we sense fully the coming of Caravaggio and of Baroque. The scene is filled with epic and dynamism, emotion and movement. The disorderly animals, and the motions of the figures grasping the animals and driving them forward is eminently Baroque. Energy, motion, passion, involvement in the scene, contrasts of black and white are all the ingredients of the Baroque and these can be found accomplished in the Bassano picture. Jacopo Bassano combined the style elements of many other masters to the way of painting that would conquer the seventeenth century.

Where did Baroque art originate? It was probably only in the rich grand cities of Western Europe that had accumulated wealth that such an art form could thrive. Venice was in a period of slow decline. But because of the mass of funds in the city it continued to augment its revenues of trade. The same was true of Antwerp. And in Rome, the Roman Catholic Popes stood at the centre of a steady inflow of money from the sale of indulgences and of parts of the revenues of the European clergy. All this wealth was spent in the late sixteenth century and even more in the seventeenth century, to at least a significant extent on art. No art form represents more the spending of riches than Baroque art. Its flamboyancy declares a joy of living, a confidence in wealth, a desire to dwell in extravagant beauty and the will to boast with the acquired abundance. The middle class of traders and merchants could compete with the courts of Europe in magnificence and thus affirmed its power. In Venice, Tintoretto, Veronese and Jacopo Bassano were the foremost proponents of this movement.

Noah’s Sacrifice

Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839). Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preussischer Kulturbesitz. Nationalgalerie – Berlin. 1814.

Joseph Anton Koch was born in the Tyrol region of Austria, but the German Bishop of Augsburg remarked him and recommended him to go to an art school. He first studied in Augsburg, and then could attend the Karlsschule of Stuttgart from 1785 on. In 1791 he ran away from this rigid and hard school and travelled through the Alps. In 1795 an English Maecenas gave him a scholarship to go to Rome and he became acquainted there with the painter Jakob Asmus Carstens. He shared a workshop with Carstens in Rome. He also learnt to know other German painters. He was particularly fond of a small village outside Rome, called Olevano Romano, and married the daughter of a winegrower there. He painted mainly the country landscapes of the Roman surroundings. Throughout his whole life he would thus remain a painter of idyllic landscapes. The Lukasbrüder later called the Nazarenes, Johann Friedrich Overbeck, Wilhelm Schadow and Philip Veit arrived in Rome around 1810 and started a community workshop for painting in the San Isidoro abbey. They looked to Joseph Anton Koch to teach them landscape painting, but neither Koch nor his new friend the painter Reinhart, joined the group. From 1812 to 1815 Koch returned to Vienna but he himself and his Italian family could not get used to the climate of the city. He went back to Rome. Koch did not only paint there for Italian commissioners. King Ludwig I of Bavaria bought several pictures of his. Koch also made frescoes in the Roman palaces at a later age. He died in Rome in 1839. Koch sought his inspiration mostly in the Roman country side landscapes and if he occasionally painted on themes of classical antiquity or religious themes, the heroic landscapes of his pictures always had an important if not the first place. ‘Noah’s Sacrifice’ is one of those works.

When the flood was over, Noah built an altar to Yahweh and, choosing from all the clean animals and all the clean birds, he presented burnt offerings on the altar. Yahweh smelt the pleasing smell and said to himself, ‘Never again will I curse the earth because of human beings, because their heart contrives evil from their infancy. Never again will I strike down every living thing as I have done.’ God blessed then Noah and his sons, told them to multiply and to fill the earth. He then established a covenant with Noah and with all the animals of the ark that never he would destroy the earth again by flood. As a sign of the covenant, Yahweh set his bow in the clouds.

Joseph Anton Koch painted a picture of this sacrifice of Noah. We see a stone altar and around that altar Noah and his sons and daughters offering to Yahweh. Noah’s wife kneels behind him; a girl brings bushels of wood for the fire, his sons bring the animals and slaughter them. From the altar rises a white smoke, for Noah burnt only clean animals. All the animals have left the ark and Koch drew many of them in the scene: rabbits, peacocks, partridges, snakes and hedgehogs. A swan swims in a pond. To the right are lions and even a rhinoceros, but the deer play along the wild ferocious animals.

Koch presented the scene of Noah in the lower part of the painting, and as if the viewer looked down from a hill into the valley. He drew an almost horizontal and dark line under which he showed Noah’s family and this scene, situated against the shadows, make that Koch’s figures nicely stand out bright against a darker coloured background. Beyond this rim Koch painted a wide, imaginary landscape. To the left is Mount Ararat on which the ark has stranded and Koch painted the ark in a perilous position almost over the rim of the high rocks that dominate the valley. Koch’s landscape furthermore consists furthermore of a lake, into which a low waterfall breaks its waters coming from the mountains. We see a promontory with a few trees and the far blue outlines of mountain peaks. Koch combined in this grand landscape various views of the Sabine mountains of Rome that he had seen and copied before. Above the landscape, in the upper left part, he placed a rainbow and a few horse-riders in the sky, which may be a reference to the sun, to Apollo’s chariot.

The structure of Koch’s landscape is that of an ‘open V’. The sides of the V are on the left Mount Ararat and on the extreme right Koch painted high trees in dark tones. In between, the view opens wide to give the viewer an impression of enormous depth, to show the far mountains of the middle. Koch applied aerial perspective here since he painted the sharply outlined Sabine mountains in light blue colours and the viewer remembers from other, Gothic and Renaissance pictures, how the elder painters also pictured far mountains in such light blue. Koch combined an intimate scene of Noah’s family, all together around the altar to laud Yahweh, with the majesty of a splendid view of nature in poetic peace.

Joseph Anton Koch divided his picture in two parts with the lower part in the shadows and containing the personages of the theme, whereas the upper part contains the landscape painted in bright colours and in hues of delicate intensity. Here the sun stands majestically, as if it offered a pervasive light coming from all sides of the sky. Koch painted hardly a shadow of men, animal or plants, except in the chiaroscuro on the folds of the robes of the figures, which was indispensable to give the viewer a basic illusion of volume. Also in the personages Koch used delicate colours: light blue, light green, golden hues instead of fiery red or deep blue and intense green. Koch seems to have wanted to paint a picture like Perugino, Pinturicchio or Cosimo Rosselli made on the walls of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. He painted the personages in very clean lines and delicate, fresco-like chalky hues. He placed the figures as if seen from a distance. His personages are all in motion. Noah conjures the smoke of the sacrifice to the heavens and every other figure is engaged in other activities. Still, we only see a calm and dignified scene, a silent scene, and not with the obvious show of emotions that characterised the Baroque and Mannerism periods. Koch made his picture in 1814 and though he was never really a member of the Nazarene movement in Rome, the group of German-Austrian painters in Rome that followed Johann Friedrich Overbeck, he did here seem to share their ideas and their admiration for pre-Raphaelite styles.

Joseph Anton Koch was a very gifted painter. He painted his landscapes such as in ‘Noah’s Sacrifice’ always in minute detail and with great patience. Look at how finely he drew the figures, the fine colours of the animals, the extreme details of the leaves of the trees. Koch made only nice pictures, which were simple and sweet landscapes and he often split up his paintings in landscape parts of light and darker parts where the figures are. Koch’ figures are small in the landscapes, but they are part of nature and they are not overwhelmed by the grandeur of nature. Koch seemed to admire nature as God’s work and also how God had placed people in the variety of nature’s elements. His landscapes such as in ‘Noah’s Sacrifice’ are impressive and grand, but they do not menace, so that his pictures remain a haven of peace. Koch liked, loved nature like it was, with the empathy of a wise man and not in the abandonment to Romantic feelings and atmospheres for which his countrymen of later times would become famous. If we regret some more Romantic involvement of Koch with nature in his pictures, we must recognise that the sweetness and innocence he brought in his views must have been the expression of his own character. His landscapes are lyrical and bucolic, but Koch took great care to evade too great a sensitivity. He always painted in harmony of composition and of colours.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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