This painting, by the British artist John Linnell (c. 1792-1882), was inspired by the famous Biblical tales of the Great Flood (or Deluge) and Noah’s Ark. Found in the Book of Genesis, the story involves a divinely-unleashed worldwide flood that only began to abate after forty days. According to the tale, the only safe place to be during the torrential inundation was Noah’s Ark. Therefore, only Noah’s family and the lucky animals they brought onboard their ark were able to survive this primordial apocalypse. On this tale, the Book of Genesis, stated:
“For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits. Every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark” (Genesis 7: 17-23, NIV translation).
John Linnell (c. 1792-1882) did not just rely on the ancient religious text for inspiration. Linnell used the English countryside as a muse, and he also is thought to have perused the lines of Paradise Lost, by John Milton (c. 1608-1674), in search of ways to envision the flood. Milton wrote:
“The one just man alive; by his command
Shall build a wondrous ark, as thou beheld’st,
To save himself and household from amidst
A world devote to universal wrack.
No sooner he with them of man and beast
Select for life shall in the ark be lodged,
And sheltered round, but all the cataracts
Of heav’n set open on the earth shall pour
Rain day and night, all fountains of the deep
Broke up, shall have the ocean to usurp
Beyond all bounds, till inundation rise
Above the highest hills: then shall this mount
Of Paradise by might of waves be moved
Out of his place…
And the clear sun on his wide wat’ry glass
Gazed hot, and of the fresh wave largely drew…
(John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 11, lines 818-845)
Following John Milton’s narrative, the painting shows the storms of the Great Deluge beginning to gather as animals weave their way up to the safety of Noah’s Ark, which can be seen in the background of the painting on the right side. Linnell seems to convert Milton’s description of the hot sun into warm paint for the artwork’s colorful sunset. There is also something of Milton’s reflective and glassy description of water in John Linnell’s depiction of the rising seas on the horizon of the painting. In the foreground of the scene, Noah and his family look out over the landscape, the clouds, and the rising seas, taking in the paradoxical ominous and beautiful sights before having to flee, themselves, to the safety of the ship.
Written by C. Keith Hansley