Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt van Rijn

Rembrandt van Rijn

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633, Oil on canvas, 160 x 128 cm, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston; Stolen in 1990, P21s24, Photo: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston / HIP / Art Resource

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The Waters Rise Up

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While not strictly a visual depiction of Psalm 93, Rembrandt van Rijn’s painting depicts a gospel story (Matthew 8:23–27; Mark 4:35–41; Luke 8:22–25) that strongly echoes the Psalmist’s imagery of God’s mightiness over the raging waters of the sea. Rembrandt’s painting captures the complexity of both the psalm’s imagery and the psychology of the various characters in the gospel scene.

Biblically, water is a multivalent image, at times lifesaving (‘As a deer longs for flowing streams’, Psalm 42:1) and at other times life-threatening (as in the story of the Flood, Genesis 6–9). Similarly, the psalmist is unclear about whether the waters are lifted in praise of God or are in rebellion against God. Rembrandt conveys this ambiguity as our eyes move about the painting. On the right, the waves and sky are dark, brooding, threatening. But on the left, the clouds part, light comes in, and the bubbly-white waves are painted with delicate texture, more fluffy than frightful (Walsh 1985: 48–49).

Whereas the Gospel accounts of this scene portray the disciples as a group, every figure in Rembrandt’s visual meditation adds detail to its narrative drama. For example, five disciples hold tight the sails, trying to keep the boat afloat, not realizing the true source of their impending deliverance. One vomits overboard, too afflicted in body to focus on his master.

The characters’ gazes also convey important dynamics of the scene. Only three look at Jesus, who appears serene, perhaps having just awoken from his nap. One disciple turns his back both to us and to Jesus: is he dozing through the storm, like Jonah? Or is he so trusting in God that he doesn’t feel the need to wake Jesus at all? The disciple next to him gazes directly at us. His staring eyes, coupled with the variety of responses catalogued in the painting, ask the viewer the same challenging questions the story asks the reader: ‘What sort of man is this?’; ‘Where is your faith?’ (Durham 2004: 14–15, 30–33).

 

References

Durham, John I. 2004. The Biblical Rembrandt: Human Painter in a Landscape of Faith (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press)

Walsh, John. 1985. ‘Observations on Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee”’, Notes in the History of Art, 5.1: 44–52


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