The seventeenth century saw a new genre of Dutch paintings quickly establish itself. These paintings were made not for church or court, but for ordinary citizens, and this seascape is one example. It shows three Dutch cargo ships in a stormy sea off some inhospitable foreign coast, their distance from home being evident from the shoreline which is quite unlike that of the Low Countries. Many seventeenth-century Dutch mariners lost their lives in the circumstances the painting depicts.
The majority of seventeenth-century Dutch merchants built their fortunes by trading with the East, buying spices and porcelain. Mariners risked their lives at sea, and their employers’ livelihoods were also at risk from the passage to and from China. For them, shipwrecks spelt disaster and fortunes were lost as ships foundered. If this painting originally hung in a Dutch merchant’s house, it would have been a reminder that his worldly wealth was vulnerable.
Seascapes were often displayed over doorways as reminders of the perils associated with passage from one state to another. The painting could have physically hung at a threshold between rooms, but its position may have symbolized the dangers of all transitions—those associated with economic exchanges, and also those of exchanges with the divine.
The book of Job suggests that the nature of both such exchanges is inherently ‘precarious’ (a word etymologically related to ‘prayer’). The ‘ends of the earth’ are known only to God (Job 28:24). In Job, the pursuit of worldly wealth ‘to the farthest bounds’ (28:3) is compared to the search for wisdom, and in both cases the pursuer’s whole existence is at stake. Appropriately, the mariners in this painting, like the miners in Job 28, ‘swing to and fro’ above ‘the deep’ (vv.4, 14).
Merchants invested money in the hope of greater returns. But of course, as the painting shows, things can go awry. If the ship also represents the turbulent voyage of the soul on its way through life, then it is a worthy support for meditation on the whole book of Job, which is about how a rich man’s faith was tested by the loss of his wealth.
28“Surely there is a mine for silver,
and a place for gold which they refine.
2Iron is taken out of the earth,
and copper is smelted from the ore.
3Men put an end to darkness,
and search out to the farthest bound
the ore in gloom and deep darkness.
4They open shafts in a valley away from where men live;
they are forgotten by travelers,
they hang afar from men, they swing to and fro.
5As for the earth, out of it comes bread;
but underneath it is turned up as by fire.
6Its stones are the place of sapphires,
and it has dust of gold.
7“That path no bird of prey knows,
and the falcon’s eye has not seen it.
8The proud beasts have not trodden it;
the lion has not passed over it.
9“Man puts his hand to the flinty rock,
and overturns mountains by the roots.
10He cuts out channels in the rocks,
and his eye sees every precious thing.
11He binds up the streams so that they do not trickle,
and the thing that is hid he brings forth to light.
12“But where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding?
13Man does not know the way to it,
and it is not found in the land of the living.
14The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’
and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’
15It cannot be gotten for gold,
and silver cannot be weighed as its price.
16It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,
in precious onyx or sapphire.
17Gold and glass cannot equal it,
nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold.
18No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal;
the price of wisdom is above pearls.
19The topaz of Ethiopia cannot compare with it,
nor can it be valued in pure gold.
20“Whence then comes wisdom?
21It is hid from the eyes of all living,
and concealed from the birds of the air.
22Abaddon and Death say,
‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’
23“God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place.
24For he looks to the ends of the earth,
and sees everything under the heavens.
25When he gave to the wind its weight,
and meted out the waters by measure;
26when he made a decree for the rain,
and a way for the lightning of the thunder;
27then he saw it and declared it;
he established it, and searched it out.
28And he said to man,
‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
and to depart from evil is understanding.’ ”