Masterful drawings of an ancient theme. Noah's menagerie seen the way he might have depicted it

Noah's Ark, by Rien Poortvliet. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 240 pp. 11'' by 15''; 233 paintings in full color. $37.50 If, in addition to walking with God and building the ark, Noah had painted, his accomplishments might have included this book of drawings and paintings.

Considering the cruise of the ark as the greatest gathering of animal life ever, the Dutch naturalist and painter, Rien Poortvliet, herein recaptures the wonder that gathering must have presented to the patriarch.

Drawing on the Bible and other available documents, the author also speculates, whimsically: For example, how was the three-story structure put together? With what tools?

Using text and drawings to make his point - ``it's even possible that they had a crane like this one'' - the text appears in script near an elaborate drawing of men raising a bundle of lumber from ground level to one of the upper decks by a primitive hoist - ``and if the crane had not yet been invented they still had horses....''

He adds: ``One thing is for sure: Noah must have attracted a great deal of attention and how people must have laughed at that putterer....'' Poortvliet shows three burly characters who laugh as Noah continues working without looking up.

Though the traditional theme of the book is developed in several pages of imaginative drawings, ``Noah's Ark'' is obviously a vehicle for Poortvliet to make a serious presentation of dozens of animal paintings. The volume is an unusual blend of parts: the theme with thought-provoking text, quotes from the Bible and other authorities; and the main body, masterful artwork of accurately portrayed animals. The artwork is particularily impressive in the use of different styles, from detailed to impressionistic to nearly abstract.

Many animals appear in candid moments not likely in man's presence, such as a close-up of a rabbit being chased by a fox, the latter dashing toward the reader!

This scene, like others, suggests what the Bible doesn't, that for the duration of the voyage, ``animals had to adjust considerably to the circumstances on board; they couldn't just do what they wanted to. In this book, the animals and background are one, a unit, rather than being placed in contrived scenes as so often happens.

Throughout the book, one gains a sense of the author's love for animal life and for God.

Though the art assembled here is masterful, this is not just an art book: it is also a thought book. God is frequently referred to as the creator. This point of view is sometimes presented humorously. With drawings, the author suggests the complexity in selecting the various noses, ears, beaks, paws, pelts, and tails for the creatures.

He makes the reader aware of the uniqueness of each species and the diversity of creation.

Fresh perspective on the biblical account is encouraged: ``not only must Noah have made a lot of friends, he also must have been lost in wonder looking about him, how had the dear God created it all!'' Psalm 8 is quoted: ``When I consider thy heavens ... what is man ... how excellent is thy name in all the earth!''

This volume may be without audience boundaries: Its whimsical drawings of an ancient theme will be attractive and therefore educational for children, and with its quality and mastery of art, informative as well as fun for adults.

Jim Jokerst and Bob Salo are wildlife artists and members of the Monitor advertising department's art staff.

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