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Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee"

February 2, 2023 3 min read
Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee"

While seascapes were commonly depicted by painters of the Dutch Golden Age, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee is the only seascape painted by Rembrandt van Rijn. The seascape paintings of this era marked the first time European artists sought to produce realistic depictions of natural settings, utilizing the allure of the sea and the power of storms to present images of tremendous meaning.

Selection from Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee"

Rembrandt is counted amongst the greatest artists to have ever lived. Born in Leiden in the Dutch Republic in 1606, Rembrandt apprenticed under Jacob van Swanenburg in Leiden for several years before moving to Amsterdam to apprentice under a Pieter Lastman. The former was known for his historical and Christian paintings; the latter for his focus on faces and fine details when painting the human body. While Rembrandt’s career was largely confined to Leiden and Amsterdam (in fact, he never crossed over the borders the Dutch Republic), the subject matter of his paintings varied tremendously, including portraits, animal studies, landscapes, and religious, historical, and mythological scenes.

Rembrandt painted The Storm on the Sea of Galilee in 1633. The painting was famously stolen, along with a dozen other works, in the still-unsolved 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft in a heist nearly as compelling as the miracle it depicts. Rembrandt’s work reflects upon the Gospel of Mark:

“On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd, they took him with them, just as he was, in the boat. And other boats were with him. And a great storm of wind arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling” (Mark 4:35-37).
The painting depicts the boat amidst the storm. Under oppressive storm clouds, the small boat is tossed about as rocks and waves blend together. The disciples make up much of the scene: some fight to maintain control of the tousled boat; others wake Christ to beg for his help; others simply grasp for something firm to hold (including one disciple, with Rembrandt’s face, looking out at the viewer); one even leans over the side of the boat, nauseous.

None of the disciples’ eyes seem to look towards a detail that is so obvious to us, the viewers. Despite the storm that rages around them, they are sailing into the light. In the stern of the ship, Christ is visible:

But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” And they were filled with awe, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him” (Mark 4:38-41)?
The viewer is left in awe of the power of the man who commands even the wind and the sea, and challenged by Christ’s words.
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