I’d like to dedicate this post to my father, who passed away earlier this week. He was a great Dad, and I will miss him. I had already been working on this for several weeks, but it seems a very appropriate painting for a man who was in the navy in WWII and went through the storms of many battles, as well as a gigantic typhoon that caused much damage to the American fleet in the Pacific.
With little warning Typhoon Cobra slammed into America’s third fleet in 1944. The fleet was involved in air raids against the Japanese in the Philippines, but it was Cobra’s 100 mph winds, high seas, and heavy rains that sank 3 destroyers, heavily damaged a number of other ships and aircraft, and drowned almost 800 men.
A poem written in the 1860s, and now known as the “Navy Hymn,” was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s favorite and was sung at his funeral. It speaks about the dangers of the sea, and yet points us to God who is more powerful than the biggest storm. Here is its first stanza:
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633, by Rembrandt
The storm on the Sea of Galilee had waves so high that both Matthew and Luke tell us about it. Matthew says, “…there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves….” There was no warning, and they were in great peril. Even those who had been fishermen were crying out in fear! In this large painting, measuring over 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide, Rembrandt has caught the fury of that storm.
Rembrandt painted in the 1600s, during the Golden Age of Dutch Art. After nearly 50 years of persecution and war, the Dutch won political freedom from Spain and the right to practice their Protestant faith. The Dutch also had a world-wide trading empire, and, Amsterdam, where Rembrandt lived, was one of Europe’s busiest ports. The well-to-do middle class could buy furs from their American colony and silks from Asia. They bought so many paintings that they supported hundreds of artists, who specialized in landscapes, still lifes, or portraits.
Rembrandt specialized in portraits, but he most loved to paint scenes from the Bible. Despite the fact that in Protestant Holland there was little market for these, Rembrandt made hundreds of paintings, drawings, and etchings of Bible scenes. Of these, this is his only seascape, painted when he was just 27.
The Country School was a calm moment in time, but the action in The Storm on the Sea of Galilee practically breaks out of its frame. It’s like watching an exciting movie building toward its climax, with contrasting signs of danger and hope. Find some contrasting signs and notice how they build tension, making you wonder if the men in the boat will survive.
Light and dark contrasts can also add to the drama. Rembrandt lights up the action of the waves and the disciples trying to hold the ripped sail, while he enfolds the less active stern in shadow. The clearing sky in the background contrasts with the menacing darkness in the foreground. Although Rembrandt is known for his deep shadows, they weren’t always as dark as we think. Varnish that had darkened over the years gave one of his most famous paintings the nickname, “The Nightwatch.” When it was cleaned people realized it wasn’t even a night scene!
Rembrandt creates activity with lots of curves and diagonals. Look at the curves of the sail ripping away from the mast, the wave reaching for the disciples, and the loose rope flying away on the wind. The boat rising up against the wave is a sharp diagonal that you can feel in the pit of your stomach, especially as you realize it must smack down on the other side! And all those ropes straining against the wind to hold the tilting mast add great tension. How many other curves and diagonals you can find?
In contrast to all that frantic activity, Rembrandt has created an area of relative calm in the stern of the boat. He leads your attention there with ropes coming down from the mast, with the color red (just like Winslow Homer!), and the faces of the people there. Rembrandt specialized in portraits that revealed the character and thoughts of his sitters, and he’s done that here. Take some time to find and appreciate these miniature portraits:
The disciple huddled in frozen fear
The disciple in red who is seasick
The stoic disciple steering the boat
The disciple holding his hat and looking out at the storm in awe (a self portrait of Rembrandt, himself)
The frantic disciples waking Jesus and accusing Him of not caring if they perish
In the center of this group is Jesus, surrounded by a glow of light, and that spiritual light points us to how the drama will play out. It’s not the halo of earlier religious paintings, but Rembrandt, who was a Christian, always depicts Jesus with an inner or surrounding light to show that Jesus has life and light in Himself. Rembrandt clearly shows that neither the frantic activity in the front of the boat nor the hopeless fear in the back can save them; only the power of God can do that.
If the disciples think they are afraid in the storm, wait until they realize who Jesus is, and that even the wind and the waves obey Him when He commands them to be still! The second stanza of the “Navy Hymn” says it so well:
O Christ! Whose voice the waters heard
And hushed their raging at Thy word,
Who walked’st on the foaming deep,
And calm amidst its rage didst sleep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
This painting and the Bible account it illustrates, certainly remind us of the power of God, and His presence with us through the storms of our lives, but I’m going to go a little different route because of the history of the painting itself.
The public has not seen this painting in 24 years! It was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston in 1990, part of the biggest art heist in U.S. history.
The robbers came in the middle of the night on St. Patrick’s Day weekend. Only 2 security guards were on duty, and the thieves gained entrance by posing as policemen. They handcuffed and duct taped the guards in the basement, and using knives and hammers, cut Storm on the Sea of Galilee and other paintings from their frames. In just a couple hours they were gone, and no one discovered the crime until the next morning.
Books have been written about the theft, and the FBI continues to follow up leads, but the frames at the Gardner still hang empty.
The world was shocked and saddened by the loss of this great painting and art lovers wonder if they’ll ever see it again. No leads have revealed where the paintings are, even though there is a 5 million dollar reward for information leading to their recovery in good condition. And their condition is an important concern; even if they are returned, what shape will they be in? Paintings, like all earthly things, deteriorate, so museum officials have pleaded with the robbers to keep the paintings in the right temperature and humidity.
Over 2 thousand years ago, Jesus was crucified, and His followers were shocked and saddened by His death. But after thinking they had lost him forever, they were amazed and overjoyed when He rose from the dead and met with them many times over the next 40 days. They were saddened again when Jesus ascended into heaven, but even though Jesus has left this earth temporarily, we have His promise that He who has life and light in Himself will return. Furthermore, while Jesus is gone we don’t have to worry about His condition—He has a resurrection body that will never decay, and we know right where He is—at the right hand of God the Father, interceding for us.
The empty frames at the Gardner try to keep alive a hope for the return of some amazing paintings, but the empty tomb of Calvary is a sure hope of the return of our glorious Savior.
Here are some additional activities for this painting:
Which of the 12 disciples would you be most like? Why?
What would you see, hear, and feel if you were in this boat? the yelling of the men, the screaming of the wind, your cold, wet clothing, the dark billowing clouds, etc.
Try imitating the facial expressions and postures of each person.