Seaport with the Sermon of Christ (Harbour Scene with Christ Preaching) by Jan Brueghel the Elder

Jan Brueghel the Elder

Seaport with the Sermon of Christ (Harbour Scene with Christ Preaching), 1598, Oil on wood, 79.3 x 118.6 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, 187, bpk Bildagentur / Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische, Staatsgemaeldesammlungen, Munich, Germany / Hui Jin / Art Resource, NY

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Hearken!

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Michael Banner

All of the Synoptic Gospels record Christ teaching from a boat on just a single occasion. Mark and Matthew specify that what he teaches on that occasion is the parable of the sower (in Luke, the parable is told later; 8:4–18).

A visual representation cannot very well indicate the content of Christ’s teaching. Nonetheless the scene depicted by Jan Brueghel the Elder is effective in echoing the story of the parable.

We look down towards the harbour from a high vantage point yielding a vast panoramic perspective that reaches to far distant mountains on the horizon. The colours of the picture work to suggest depth, receding from strongly defined forms in dark browns and greens in the foreground, through to fainter contours executed in lighter greens and blue. Characteristically, Brueghel produces not so much a landscape as a dramatic and mysterious ‘worldscape’. This is a monumental vista, taking in entire regions in a way no human eye can.

These worldscapes allow, however, not only a panorama of the natural terrain, but also of the human activity it contains.

Brueghel’s chosen viewpoint enables him to show both Christ preaching from a boat and the burden of that teaching. On the one hand we can make out Christ (just visible on the boat at centre) addressing a considerable crowd, pressing to the very shore-line to hear him. The crowd’s eagerness should not surprise us. In the previous chapter of Mark (3:9), the very reason Christ had asked the disciples to find a boat was just to avoid the crush of those flocking to him. But his parable does not only tell of his word being laid out before the world, as the world is laid out to view in the painting. Nor only of its being heard and taken up. It also tells of its failing to grow and bear fruit. Satan, persecution, and ‘the cares of this world’ (Mark 4:15–19) prevent the seed from coming to harvest.

Brueghel portrayed fish markets like the one in this panel on several occasions. Here, the artist sets Christ’s preaching by the coast, adjacent to the absorbing bustle of just such a market. An eager crowd ‘hears the word’, to be sure; but from a wider perspective, Christ is small and difficult to pick out and his words must compete with all that busyness.