February fill dyke in paintings: Noah’s Flood

Léon Comerre (1850–1916), The Flood of Noah and his Companions (1911), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes, France. Wikimedia Commons.

There’s an old English proverb “February fill dyke, be it black or be it white”, referring to the rain (black) or snow (white) that usually falls heavily during the month and fills all the ditches.

Benjamin Williams Leader (1831–1923), February Fill Dyke (1881), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Birmingham Museums Trust, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s that proverb that forms the title of Benjamin Williams Leader’s seasonal view of February Fill Dyke from 1881. This weekend I mark this month with a selection of paintings about floods Biblical, mythical, imagined and real.

A great flood is one of the most common elements in most mythologies. Floods appear in several variations across many quite different mythologies, and have been a popular theme in European and non-European paintings.

The best-known story, at least in Europe, is that given in the Old Testament, in Genesis Chapters 6-9: the people of the world had become wicked and turned their backs on God, so God decided to send a flood to wipe them off the face of the earth. Only the faithful Noah and his family were to be spared, in recognition of their more godly ways. Noah was therefore told to build a large vessel, the Ark, into which he placed himself, his family, and a breeding pair of all the animals and birds on the earth.

The rain then fell and the earth flooded for a period of anything between 40 and 150 days. Everyone and everything else was engulfed in the waters and died. As the flood started to recede, Noah sent out a dove every seven days. One day the dove returned with an olive branch; a week later the dove did not return, and had presumably reached dry land, in the vicinity of Mount Ararat.

The flood subsided and the earth was repopulated by the survivors from the Ark, and God made a covenant that the earth would never be flooded again in this way, and the rainbow would serve as the marker of that covenant.

Unknown, The Great Flood (c 1450-1499), oil on panel, 122 × 98 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Wikimedia Commons.

This painting by an unknown artist of The Great Flood (c 1450-1499) features Noah’s Ark, with its rich collection of wildlife, at the lower left. This is floating in the remains of a populous town, whose inhabitants fill the growing lake.

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475–1564) The Great Flood (c 1509), fresco, 280 x 570 cm, Sistine Chapel, The Vatican. Wikimedia Commons.

Michelangelo’s The Great Flood (c 1509) in the Sistine Chapel is quite different. Noah’s Ark is in the background, and rescuing survivors from the water. Those who make it to land are more obviously distressed, and one appears to have drowned already. Desperation and panic are setting in.

Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638), The Great Flood (1595), oil on canvas, 148 x 184.6 cm, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Joachim Wtewael’s The Great Flood (1595) has more atmosphere, although its naked bodies appear curiously contorted.

Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610), The Great Flood (c 1600), oil on copper, 26.5 × 34.8 cm, Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Adam Elsheimer’s The Great Flood (c 1600) is more conventional. It’s nighttime, and the dense clouds are lit only by flashes of lightning. The population of a village is processing up to higher ground to escape the rising floodwaters. Faces are anxious, but there is no terror or panic.

Léon Comerre (1850–1916), The Flood of Noah and his Companions (1911), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Comerre’s The Flood of Noah and his Companions (1911) seems to have an inappropriate title, but captures most dramatically the struggle of a packed mass of naked humans and animals, with others slipping into the waters below to drown. This is also one of the few paintings of the flood which successfully conveys the impression of rain and everything being sodden wet, and may refer to Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa.

Margret Hofheinz-Döring (1910-1994), The Flood (1962), watercolour, 32 x 46 cm, Galerie Brigitte Mauch Göppingen. Courtesy of Margret Hofheinz-Döring / Galerie Brigitte Mauch Göppingen [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
Margret Hofheinz-Döring’s The Flood (1962) shows many people in outline, and uses a watery blue, but avoids death and disaster altogether, appearing quite serene.

Adi Holzer (b 1936), The Flood (from the Noah Cycle) (1975), serigraphy print on paper, 41.7 x 29.5 cm, location not known. Courtesy of the artist, via Wikimedia Commons.

Holzer’s The Flood (1975), from his Noah Cycle, includes a surprising amount of detail in its simplified content: a bolt of lightning, the Ark tossed around on the waves, splashes of white foam, a toothed shark, a whale, a tiger stranded on a rock. In the foreground, and clearest of all, is a single person, gasping for breath, their left hand held up in a bid for aid.

Thomas Cole (1801–1848), The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge (1829), oil on canvas, 90.8 × 121.3 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Katie Dean in memory of Minnibel S. and James Wallace Dean and museum purchase through the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Cole’s The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge (1829) shows a more serene view of the Ark floating peacefully in the middle distance, as barren land returns from the falling waters. Remains of uprooted and smashed trees appear, as does a single white human skull at the bottom.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), The Morning after the Deluge (c 1843), oil on canvas, 78.5 x 78.5 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Turner’s painting of the flood itself is a little too vague to support much in the way of narrative. However, its companion The Morning after the Deluge – or more correctly Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis – (c 1843) has more structured content.

In a colour vortex based on Turner’s interpretation of Goethe’s Colour Theory, Moses is seen in the distance, writing the book of Genesis. In front of him is the brazen serpent used by Moses in the wilderness as a cure for plague, symbolising Christ’s redemption of mankind in the New Covenant of his ministry on earth.