In the 1860s Madox Brown designed a number of images to be rendered in stained glass. As one might expect, all of these depicted biblical scenes and were employed in the decoration of churches. The Pre-Raphaelites would have appreciated the implicit gothic style of the designs as instances of "the true catholic style" (Ruskin) and their use in Christian revivalism. The most peculiar of these images is that of Noah where Madox Brown weaves a rich tapestry of symbols while using the restrictive medium of stained glass.
Madox's predecessors — the Renaissance painters like Michelangelo — favoured visual literalism and faithfully depicted particular scenes from the Old Testament narrative such as Noah's sacrifice and his drunkenness. Madox Brown's treatment of Noah is very different. The ark does not crowd the image, rather it has been sized down to a small iconic symbol held in the righteous man's hands, his whole body draped in a cloak patterned in acorns. The cloak stands out from Noah's body as it has been given a luminescent, purple colour — it forms a triangular shape the base of which is Noah's cupped hand's securing the ark and with it mankind's salvation. The ark therefore rests on a very cleverly employed triple symbol: not only are acorns a symbol of patience but they were also administered to drunkards in the 1600s (thus referring to Noah's famous drunkenness) and furthermore the acorn is often a nautical reference to the piece of wood which keeps the vane on the mast-head of ship. Thus, to the delight of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, Madox Brown has risen to the occasion, uniting the immanent with the transcendent, or the literal with the symbolic, in a striking artistic interpretation of the Noah and the ark story. The literal and individual narrative elements of the story — the man, his object and the total significance are all realized as symbols which enwrap the image and elevate medieval stained glass art to a higher level. Madox Brown is telling us to forget the facts which lean on the narrative: to us Noah wears and holds his own worth — it is inherent rather than apparent.
Where would we place this image — as a piece of medieval revivalism or as a work embodying Pre-Raphaelite values?
The manner in which Noah is holding the ship — what does it suggest about Noah and the ship?
Do you think that the image is too symbolic? Not enough reference to the actual story?
What do you think of the choice of colour? (Notice how different the other designs are)
What do you think is the effect of Noah wearing a symbol?
Last modified 28 May 2007