Gustave Doré’s The Dove Sent Forth from the Ark

In 1843, Jean Jacques Bourassé and Pierre Janvier published a French translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible, and in 1866 a deluxe, folio-sized, two-volume edition was issued, containing 241 illustrations by Gustave Doré, of which this is one. Many of them, like this one, were novel treatments of familiar subjects, and all of them were immensely successful and influential.

In this picture, it was a dark and stormy night. In the ark, Noah is just visible in the one opened window, at the top center, watching in hope as the dove departs. The rest of the image is pretty hopeless. The ground is littered with the bodies of the drowned—people, birds, and animals. The dark, V-shaped composition shows the floodwaters still pouring off the shadowed valley. But the dove is a stark contrast: brilliantly lit, it is a beacon of hope, and behind the looming form of the ark, light is breaking through and illuminating the clouds from below as they begin to disperse.

Doré was (and is) famous for his lighting effects, especially his skies. My father, not a man well-versed in art history, loved the effect of the sun’s rays slanting through the clouds on a dark day, and would always say to us, “Look! A Doré sky.” Here, and in many of his biblical illustrations, Doré uses slanting rays of light to signal the presence of the divine breaking through into this world: God has saved mankind and will never send such a flood again. The dove, too, takes the traditional pose of the Holy Spirit’s dove, looking down with its wings outspread, as it moves across the face of the remaining waters. In all of Doré’s illustrations, the interplay of light and dark, and especially of sunlight, symbolizes the dynamic intervention of the divine, the supernatural, into the realm of the natural world.

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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.

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