A pterosaur in the Flood waters?

Artistry and being consistent with the Biblical text

by

Published: 6 August 2019 (GMT+10)
dove-back
“Noah receiving the dove back onto the Ark” by Edward Burne-Jones (1863).

Have you ever thought about drawing an image of the events surrounding the global Flood of Noah? If so, what would you include in your depiction, assuming contemporary knowledge of animals that lived during that period? Would you include extinct kinds of animals such as dinosaurs, dicynodonts and pterosaurs, or only those alive today? To help explore these questions a case-in-point comes from a nineteenth century drawing recently on display in the Tate Britain Art Museum, London, entitled “Noah receiving the dove back onto the Ark” (1863).1 It was drawn with pen on a wooden block by English artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898). Considered one of the last Pre-Raphaelites, before becoming an artist he had intended to become a Christian minister. His depiction of the Ark and what is floating in the flood water prompts several points worth discussing.

A drowning pterosaur?

The drawing rather vividly depicts the end of the Flood when Noah had sent out the dove for the second time and it returned with a freshly plucked olive leaf in its mouth (Genesis 8:11). In the water outside the Ark are the bodies of those who had perished, having refused to enter, so had suffered the judgement of God. Also in the water are the bodies of three animals, one a mere skeleton, one only showing part of a head, and the other still physically intact. The latter has wings which appear to be membranes of skin, attached to the digits and extending down to the upper section of the legs. There is an elongated neck attached to the head which is partially hidden behind the wing. It is hard to come to any other conclusion than that Burne-Jones wanted to depict a pterosaur of some sort floating in the Flood waters.

Of course this does not mean that Burne-Jones had actually seen a live pterosaur by the time of this artwork in 1863. They were already well known to science by this stage. Their fossils were first discovered in the late 1700s and they had been identified as flying creatures by acclaimed anatomist Georges Cuvier in 1801.2 So Burne-Jones would have had access to various descriptions from which to work. It was certainly a very interesting choice of animal to include, and his reason for doing so is highly consistent with Biblical history!

Right thinking = right depictions

While some consider the creation movement to be of modern origins, the thinking behind Biblical Creation is certainly not. From early Church leaders to the Reformers, and of course Jesus himself, biblical Creation has always been the historically correct interpretation of Genesis. It has ensured that the biblical text and what it intends to say comes first (Sola Scriptura),3 which gives people a worldview that can interpret and explain the physical world as we see it today. Not the perfect world that God created around 6,000 years, but a fallen one of death, suffering and sin—one which underwent a massive physical change at the time of the Flood around 4,500 years ago.

By thinking about what the Bible actually says, rather than any man-made notion, it can make depictions of biblical scenes much more accurate and edifying. Indeed Burne-Jones hoped that, by “Portraying Biblical stories with realism, he made religion relatable and accessible”.4 Thinking about his Ark/Flood depiction there are a number of points we can raise:

  • All animals that ever existed have at some point in the earth’s history lived alongside humans. This is a very important way of thinking. The drawing depicts pterosaurs, created on day 5, and later taken onto Noah’s Ark, creatures which lived at the same time as humans (created on day 6) until their extinction sometime after the Flood.5 It is therefore essential to realise that, if we are being true to the biblical text, all kinds of animals that we are now aware of (including dinosaurs) can potentially be drawn going onto/coming off Noah’s Ark, or perishing in the Flood waters.
  • The shape of the Ark is very important. The Bible is not only clear on the immense size and internal structure of Noah’s Ark (three decks), but also on its shape (Genesis 6). The Hebrew word used for the Ark of Noah (which only had to float, not travel like a ship) is tebah (תבה) meaning box-shaped or chest. Burne-Jones drawing chose to stick carefully to the box-shaped Ark, rather than any of the ridiculous rounded bath-tub sized boats that have become so popular today. Indeed the oldest depiction of a biblical scene on a coin was of a box-shaped Ark. While a wide-spread cartoonification of Noah’s Ark has sadly taken place, there are still many good resources with true biblical depictions, some of which can be purchased in CMI’s web store. It is crucial that Noah’s Ark is drawn in a biblically accurate manner, especially when the text is so clear, so as not to bring any confusion or unnecessary questions based on a false characterisation.
box-shaped-Ark
A stained-glass window (1874) designed by Burne-Jones showing the box-shaped Ark.

Unrealistic features

There are of course inaccuracies in the drawing as well as a certain sense of ‘story-telling’ in the imagery used. At the end of the Flood the waters would not have been at the height in the picture, nor would the bodies of animals and humans have been floating in the water. They would have been destroyed (either in the Flood or run-off as the Flood waters retreated off land) or else buried in sedimentary rock layers. The Flood was no sedate event, for it violently re-shaped the entire surface of the Earth, ripping up and laying down land masses with energetic currents. Oscillating currents and huge waves combined with continental movements due to huge tectonic and volcanic activity. The likelihood after this year long event (i.e. much time for decay) of finding intact or recognisable bodies was extremely slim. The imagery used by Burne-Jones was intended to depict God’s total judgement on those who did not heed his word, and in that respect, he certainly succeeded. In the same way, Jesus compares the total judgement at the time of the Flood to the Judgement to come upon those who do not heed His Word (Matthew 24:37-41).

Artists of today and Christians today

This example should give artists depicting Biblical scenes some important food for thought:

  • How can I be true to the biblical text in what I draw?
  • How can I be faithful to the Bible and what it wants to teach?
  • We should not be afraid to represent Biblical history accurately.
  • We should not surrender our artwork to any element of a naturalistic evolutionary anti-biblical worldview.

Of course these pointers are not just for professional artists, but for all Christians who may be parents, teachers, ministers, siblings, co-workers, friends, etc. How do we accurately convey biblical teaching in a realistic and God-honouring way in our own sphere of influence? Today’s world is in dire need of being reminded of its true historical foundations and especially the spiritual reconciliation found in (and only in) the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

References and notes

  1. Noah receiving the dove back onto the Ark, collections.vam.ac.uk, 17 June 2019. Return to text.
  2. Cuvier, G., "[Reptile volant]. In: Extrait d'un ouvrage sur les espèces de quadrupèdesdont on a trouvé les ossemensdansl'intérieur de la terre", Journal de Physique, de Chimieet d'HistoireNaturelle 52:253–267, 1801. Return to text.
  3. Sola Scriptura is Latin for ‘ Scripture alone’ and was a rallying cry of the Reformers. It means that Scripture, and only Scripture, is to be the ultimate authority for Christians in all aspects of faith and practice. Return to text.
  4. Seven sides of Edward Burne-Jones, tate.org.uk; accessed 18 June 2019. Return to text.
  5. That is, pairs of each pterosaur kind (however many there were) would have been taken onto the Ark and only succumbed to extinction in the centuries following the Flood. Return to text.

Readers’ comments

Douglas W.
As a Christian artist (retired), I very much appreciate this article and agree with it. Durer and Holbein are two other interesting artists, in this field (cf my Blogs [link deleted per feedback rules]. Richest Blessings, Douglas
Stuart H.
I've said for a long time that the animals on the Ark were the same ones that perished in the Flood and became fossilised. The common children's illustration of an Ark stuffed full of the animals we see today is very misleading. It's not just scientists who extrapolate backwards ("the present is key to the past"), but Christians do it, too. "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there".

Comments are automatically closed 14 days after publication.