Images of Noah’s ark are relatively common in medieval art, the story of the flood being familiar to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. Lincoln Cathedral’s image of the ark is found in the stained glass at the east end of the building.
The glass dates back to the early 13th century and shows Noah, the dove and an interesting vessel with a masonry structure and wooden hull. A similar image can be seen in a manuscript of the same era, thought to have been produced in Norwich.
There are no animals in either of these. The manuscript is small, measuring just 215 x 160mm, so adding tiny animals to the image would not have been an option. Likewise, there would have been technical challenges in depicting animals in stained glass!
However the stonemason at Bourges, France, did add a few animals to his ark
and in the fresco of c.1100 at the Abbey Church, Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, France, both Noah’s family and a selection of animals are clearly seen.
However, I think this has to be my favourite medieval interpretation of the story, found as a stone roof boss in Norwich Cathedral.
On the top deck are squabbling monkeys, birds with very long beaks and an elephant (according to Martial Rose’s book Stories in Stone: The Medieval Roof Carvings of Norwich Cathedral). A muzzled bear, which would have been a familiar sight to the medieval audience from bear-baiting shows, cattle and a lion inhabit the lower deck. On the middle deck, to the right, is the head of a unicorn. I haven’t seen this mythical creature in association with Noah before – tradition has it that the unicorn was too proud to enter the ark, which, of course, is why it is now extinct.
So here is my illuminated page, based on the image in Lincoln Cathedral, with a selection of animals including a Lincolnshire Red cow, Lincolnshire Longwool sheep, fox, badger, Lincolnshire Curly-Coated pig (now sadly extinct but reported to have come up to a man’s waist), a seal from Donna Nook, a Lincolnshire Buff chicken and a dormouse. Some of the birds we commonly see in the county fly around the 24 carat gold border.
It’s a shame we don’t see unicorns in Lincolnshire – that distinctive profile would have made a nice addition to this painting!