Noah's Sacrifice

Noah's Sacrifice by Daniel Maclise. 1847. Oil on Canvas. Leeds City Art Gallery

Commentary by George P. Landow

A long tradition had made the rainbow a commonplace symbol of peace, hope, and grace not only in scriptural exegetics but also in pictorial and literary iconography as well. The source of this iconographical tradition is Genesis, which explicitly makes this optical phenomenon a divinely instituted covenant-sign:

And God said, T his 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 do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of the covenant between me and the earth.

And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud:

And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of an flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy an 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 that is upon the earth.

And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and an flesh that is upon the earth. [Genesis 9: 12 17]

According to the Bible, then, the Lord Himself specifically made the natural phenomenon of the rainbow to function as a sign. In St Augustine's De doctrina christiana, his treatise on the correct manner for reading scripture, he explained that God made two books -- the Bible and the book of the world. But only in the Bible do natural objects have symbolical or allegorical significance, for it is only within the context of a divinely inspired narrative or other discourse that natural facts can possess a fuller, or (as St. Augustine would put it) spiritual, meaning. However, as this passage from Genesis makes quite clear, the rainbow possesses a unique status: in its natural context, as an event that occurs after any rainstorm when the light conditions are adequate, it functions linguistically and symbolically as a divinely instituted sign. The rainbow, in other words, is a prime example of a natural object or event interpreted as part of an allegorical, sacramental universe. One problem that artists and writers in the nineteenth century had to face, then, was that although many men no longer accepted such a vision of reality, the Bible made it abundantly clear that the rainbow should be understood in this manner.

As Patrick Fairbairn, a popular interpreter of the Bible, explained to his audience in The Typology of Scripture, "The fitness of the rainbow . . . to serve as a sign of the covenant made with Noah, is all that could be desired, because there is an 'exact correspondence between the natural phenomenon it represents, and the moral use to which it is applied." Such a divine promise means, not that God win never again visit His judgment upon guilty men, but that He will never again do so to the extent that He win destroy the world. In the moral as in the natural sphere, says Fairbairn, storms will occur, but no second Deluge win follow since God's mercy will always thus "rejoice against judgment." The most important significance of the rainbow is as an emblem, a promise, of grace:

How appropriate an emblem of that grace which should always show itself ready to return after wrath! Grace still sparing and preserving, even when storms of judgment have been bursting forth upon the guilty! And as the rainbow throws its radiant arch over the expanse between heaven and earth, uniting the two together again as with a wreath of beauty, after they have been engaged in an elemental war, what a fitting image does it present to the thoughtful eye of the essential harmony that still undoubtedly is its symbolic import, as the sign peculiarly connected with the covenant of Noah; it holds out, by means of its very form and nature, as assurance of God's mercy, as engaged to keep perpetually in check the floods of deserved wrath, and continue to the world the manifestation of His grace and goodness. ['The New World and its Inheritors'].

For the Christian the most important manifestation of God's grace and goodness was, of course, Christ; and long exegetical tradition held that the rainbow served not only to record God's covenant with Noah but also as a type of the second, or new, covenant, brought by Christ. As Thomas Scott's popular Bible commentary pointed out, it is "the new covenant, with its blessings and securities, which in an these events was prefigured."

The audience in Victorian England, where this tradition seems to have retained vitality longer than anywhere else, learned this interpretation of the rainbow not only from preachers and scriptural expositors but also from a revered tradition of devotional poetry. When Adam in Paradise Lostasks Michael the meaning of the "color'd streaks in Heaven," his angelic teacher instructs him that they have been placed there to remind the sons of Adam that

Such grace shall one just Man find in his sight,
That he relents, not to blot out mankind,
And makes a covenant never to destroy
The earth again by flood, nor rain to drown the world
With man therein or beast; but where he brings
Over the earth a cloud, with therein set
His triple-color'd bow, whereon to look
And can to mind his Covenant. [bk XI, 11. 890-71

Both Noah and the rainbow itself were types of the Christian dispensation, and the covenants to which both Milton and Vaughan refer are the new as wen as the old, for the one just man is that second, greater man, Christ. George Gascoigne's "Good Morlow," which also appeared in the Tract Society volume, explicitly relates the grace signified by the rainbow to his Saviour:

The rainbow bending in the sky,
Bedecked with sundry hues,
Is like the seat of God on high,
And seems to ten this new:
That as thereby He promised
To drown the world no more,
So, by the blood which Christ hath shed,
He will our health restore.

The Rev. L. B. White, editor of Sacred Poetry in the Olden Time, assists our study of this image by referring his reader to Thomas Campbell's "To the Rainbow," which rejoices that God never "lets the type grow pale with age/ That first spoke peace to man." Like Milton, Vaughan, and Gascoigne, this nineteenth-century poet accepts a sacred meaning of this optical occurrence in the heavens. One cannot tell whether by "type" Campbell means that the rainbow prefigures Christ or is merely a symbol of His mercies, but his interpretation of the rainbow in traditional Christian terms is evident. — from Images of Crisis (1982).


Landow, George P. "Rainbows: problematic images of problematic nature" in Images of Crisis. London: Routledge, 1982. 156-60,

Created 16 September 2001

Last modified 1 September 2015