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Noah's Ark

Malcah Zeldis (American, b. 1931)

Noah's Ark, 1978

  • Oil on canvas
  • 22 x 28 in. (55.9 x 71.1 cm)
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Gift of Jay Johnson, 1980-10
  • © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Noah's Ark

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Noah's Ark

Malcah Zeldis is a self-taught artist. She has acknowledged influences ranging from Flemish masters to Haitian folk art. For subject matter, she draws heavily from memory and Jewish tradition.

Zeldis’s painting Noah’s Ark depicts the conclusion of the biblical flood story. According to the biblical text, G-d decides to destroy humanity because the people have become wicked. He instructs Noah, the one worthy person remaining, to build an ark that will house his family and two of every type of creature. G-d then sends a mighty flood to wipe out everything else. After floating for six months, the ark comes to rest on a mountaintop. The story continues, as told in Genesis, and as reimagined in Zeldis’s painting:

And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. And he sent forth a raven, and it went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth. And he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground. But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him to the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth; and he put forth his hand, and took her, and brought her in unto him into the ark. And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark. And the dove came in to him at eventide; and lo in her mouth an olive-leaf freshly plucked; so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth. And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; and she returned not again unto him any more. (Genesis, Chapter 8, verses 6–12)

After leaving the ark, Noah makes an offering to G-d. G-d establishes a covenant with Noah—symbolized by the rainbow—and promises never again to destroy humanity.

And G-d said: “This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow is seen in the cloud, that I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” (Genesis, Chapter 9, verses 12–17)

Zeldis’s detailed painting is a kind of midrash—a narrative interpretation of the biblical text. The artist says, “Time is compressed in my work. I paint several aspects of the event at once.” Here, she includes a rainbow alongside the dove that returns to the ark with an olive branch. While these events do not occur simultaneously in the biblical story, Zeldis has incorporated both in order to communicate more of the narrative. Similarly, we see the drowned victims of the flood in the lower right-hand portion of the painting, even though these people presumably perished earlier in the story.

Sources:

Jewish Virtual Library

Smithsonian American Art Museum

McDonough, Yona Zeldis. Moments in Jewish Life: The Folk Art of Malcah Zeldis. New York: Friedman/Fairfax Publishers, 1996.

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