Christ Asleep during the Tempest by Eugène Delacroix

Eugène Delacroix

Christ Asleep during the Tempest, c.1853, Oil on canvas, 50.8 x 61 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929, 29.100.131,

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Interior Tempest

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In this dark, moody composition, the French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix uses colour and movement to suggest a psychological, interior tempest. There is as much drama within the boat as without.

Despite his professed atheism, Delacroix was fascinated with this topic, painting many iterations. This version is among his later works. In some variants the boat features sails; here Jesus sleeps in a simple rowboat, surrounded by nine disciples. This vessel moves by human power against the churning, emerald sea.

Jesus reclines in the stern, his head propped against his right hand. An azure blue mantle is draped around his head and shoulders. His white tunic gapes open at the chest. A dazzling gold aureole crowns Christ’s head, drawing the viewer’s eye.

The disciples are in distress. None looks to Jesus for direction. Their garments are a dusky rainbow of colour: vermilion, lilac, chartreuse, sapphire, and sepia. At centre, one bare-chested disciple looks outwards, as if towards the viewer, throwing his arms into the air, cloak billowing in the wind. Will the waves cast him overboard? Or will he find the anchor, as his right hand, searching, reaches back towards the Lord?

Three disciples struggle against the oars, one nearly toppling overboard. Seen from behind, their bare backs reflect the stormy light. Behind Jesus, one disciple in a Phrygian cap guides the rudder. Another disciple, with white beard and turban, clutches the prow.

Emotionally, the painting invites the viewer into the distress of the disciples. ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ (Mark 4:38). There is no evidence of a miracle. The only calm is the face of the sleeping Saviour. Cloudy skies and shadowy distant mountains portend a disquieting future. The sea itself echoes the turbulence of the nineteenth century and the disciples the unbelief of Delacroix

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