The Creation and Flood stories unfold in dazzling splendor at the summit of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. At first glance, the nine paintings appear to adhere neatly to the Genesis account, beginning with the Separation of Light from Darkness on the first day of Creation and ending with the Drunkenness of Noah. A closer examination of the panels, however, reveals striking deviations from the biblical text—especially in the order in which the events are portrayed. But these discrepancies don’t indicate lapses in Michelangelo’s vast knowledge of the Bible. Rather they are integral to Michelangelo’s careful theological program for the entire ceiling.
When Pope Julius told Michelangelo he could paint anything he thought appropriate for the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the artist chose to portray Old Testament events and figures as great revelations of the New Testament and the coming of Jesus Christ. This explains the presence, on the ceiling’s lower tiers, of the prophets and the ancestors of Jesus—who, according to the church, predicted his coming—and the spandrel scenes—depicting Judith and Holofernes, David and Goliath, etc.—which presage the salvation offered by Jesus. The same typology informs the nine scenes from Genesis. Michelangelo’s deviations from the biblical stories illuminate his interpretation of the Genesis scenes as precursors to New Testament events.
The Creation story begins in the easternmost panel and runs toward the west. From east to west, the nine 047rectangular panels depict the Separation of Light from Darkness, the Creation of the Sun and Moon and the Creation of the Plants, the Creation of Marine Animals (or the Separation of the Sky from the Waters), the Creation of Adam, the Creation of Eve, the Fall and Expulsion, the Sacrifice of Noah, the Deluge and, finally, the Drunkenness of Noah.
Although the Creation scenes run in the order they appear in the Bible, Michelangelo has reconfigured Noah’s story: In the Bible, the Deluge comes first (Genesis 7:6–24). Only after “every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird” emerges from the ark does Noah offer a sacrifice to God in thanks for deliverance from the Flood (Genesis 8:18–22). But Michelangelo shows Noah giving thanks for surviving a flood that has not yet occurred!
That’s not all. Upon entering the Sistine Chapel from its main entrance, in the western wall, the first scene overhead is the Drunkenness of Noah. From this perspective, the Genesis panels run (with the one exception) in reverse chronological order, ending with the Creation. Michelangelo painted the scenes backwards, and that’s how most people view them.
A closer look at the three Noah panels helps explain why Michelangelo reordered these events. The first panel depicts the following biblical passage:
Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent. 048And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.
In Michelangelo’s version Noah appears twice—in the background, clad in a red garment, he tills the soil, while in the foreground, resting against a wine vat, he sleeps as either Shem or Japheth, respectfully averting his eyes, throws a drapery over Noah’s recumbent body. Ham, at right, with an expression of consternation, gestures toward Noah.
Oddly, all three sons are naked, with only a pretense of clothing slung over their shoulders, greatly diminishing the disgrace of Noah’s transgression and the sense of Ham’s embarrassment over his father’s nakedness. (No one would dispute that the main motif in Michelangelo’s art is the ideal human male figure.)
The next expanded panel depicts the Deluge. Harsh winds blow and the waters rise around the panic-stricken people as God’s wrath causes the earth to be inundated:
Noah…went into the ark, to escape the waters of the flood…and after seven days the waters of the flood came upon the earth…on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. And rain fell upon the earth 40 days and 40 nights…and the waters prevailed so mightily upon the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered.
Only two rocky outcroppings remain uncovered, one green, the other barren. The live and dead trees may symbolize the Garden of Paradise’s Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge (which the sin of Adam and Eve caused to whither but which, as mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy, was later restored by the sacrificial death of Jesus). A bearded father struggles to carry the lifeless body of his full-grown son.
In the third Genesis panel, 049bearded Noah stands before an altar he has built and offers burnt sacrifices to God to thank him for deliverance from the Deluge (Genesis 8:20–21). Because of the displacement of this scene (which should fall between the Deluge and the Drunkenness), the art historian Giorgio Vasari and Michelangelo’s 16th-century biographer Ascanio Condivi erroneously interpreted the scene as Cain and Abel making offerings to God (Genesis 4:3–4). However, the bearded figure offering a burnt sacrifice is clearly Noah.
In Michelangelo’s interpretation, each panel of the Noah story corresponds to a specific New Testament scene. The Drunkenness, associated with wine and grapes, represents the Incarnation of Jesus, who called himself “the true vine” (John 15:1) and identified the wine at the Last Supper as his blood (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20). The Deluge, as a watery symbol of renewal and rebirth, signifies the Baptism, with the Ark in the background representing this sacrament’s promise of salvation. The New Testament epistle known as 1 Peter makes the association between the Flood and Baptism explicit: “In the days of Noah, during the building of the ark…a few…were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you” (1 Peter 3:20–21). Noah’s Sacrifice symbolizes the Crucifixion. The displacement of the Drunkenness panel therefore allows the ceiling’s New Testament subtext to run smoothly in chronological order.
The final scene on the ceiling depicts the first act of Creation—God Separating Light from Darkness. Symbolically, the scene represents the separation of the good from the evil and thus alludes to the Last Judgment, which Michelangelo would paint many years later on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel below this Creation scene. Art historian Kenneth Clark observed that Michelangelo transformed the fanciful narrative of the Creation story into a profound philosophy. The paintings, Clark noted, seem to reflect “life as a progression from the servitude of the body to the liberation of the soul.”1 The Genesis scenes, as interpreted by Michelangelo, prefigure the sweep of the entire New Testament from the birth of Jesus to Judgment Day.