On the surface Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee is the visual retelling of a pivotal story in the gospel narrative. Beneath the surface, the work reveals the battle between human frailty and nature, between faith and fear.
Rembrandt recognizes that there are two worlds, the one of the inner man or inner life, and the other, outer world that we can see. These worlds do not operate in opposition to one another. Instead, the inner world is revealed by the outer. Rembrandt’s genius is his ability to paint so that that he unveils the inner worlds of humankind by painting their outer realities.
This ability, to convey through an image the inner conflicts, thoughts, and emotions of his subjects, made Rembrandt a hugely successful portrait painter. He possessed keen observation skills that enlivened his portraits giving them a relatable humanity that is refreshing. These skills translate beautifully and add depth, to his historical and biblical works.
Rembrandt’s religious works are not devotional paintings filled with intellectual iconography for the viewer to contemplate, but, instead, are fresh imaginings of moments within the Biblical narrative. Rembrandt’s vision comes from his own, very Dutch, imagination, as he places himself into the Biblical scenes.
Marilyn Stockstaad describes Rembrandt’s religious works as, “The eternal battles of dark and light, doom and salvation, evil and good – all seem to be waged anew.”
Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee is his only Seascape
This work is the only seascape that Rembrandt ever painted, yet he has captured the chaos and terror perfectly.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a Dutch artist who lived from 1606 to 1669, the era of the Dutch Golden Age. An innovative, prolific artist, Rembrandt is considered one the of the greatest Dutch painters in history.
Tumultuous, violent times marked Rembrandt’s world, so perhaps it is not surprising that he chose this story as his one seascape.
The Netherlands had declared their independence from Catholic Spain and entered a 30-year fight to gain and defend their freedom. War provided a dramatic backdrop to Rembrandt’s life. The results of that period were that a new order slowly began to emerge in the Netherlands, an order based on spiritual austerity and social justice. The art that developed in this climate stressed realism and moved away from the Counter-Reformation (or Catholic) art that was developing in Italy.
This painting is a good example of this emerging, fully Northern, expression.
The Story’s Source
The story that this painting is based on is found in the gospel of Mark. On the surface it is about a strong storm that comes up suddenly and threatens to capsize the boat that Jesus and his disciples are in. However, when we read the story, we understand Mark is powerfully making the argument that Jesus is more than an ordinary man. Mark doesn’t preach a sermon, or give a lecture on the divinity of Jesus, instead he shows us who Jesus is.
The gospel of Mark is one of action. Reading this gospel, it’s as if Mark takes us along on the same journey that the disciples are on. In story after story Mark walks us through the disciples’ journey from fishermen to leaders of a new religion with unshakable faith in Christ.
This moment on the sea of Galilee is one of those transitional moments as the disciples struggle to answer the question, “Who is this? Even the wind and waves obey him!”
Rembrandt assumes that his audience is familiar with the events in the story and their implications. In case you are not as familiar with the narrative here is the telling from Mark:
That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee – The Reading
Rembrandt managed to perfectly capture the chaos surrounding this Bible excerpt. The painting is still, but the scene is very much alive, you can feel the turmoil of the storm. Pitching nature against human frailty – both physical and spiritual – this work contains layers of meaning.
Rembrandt has chosen to focus on the most dramatic moment of the story, the moment that Christ is first awakened from his sleep. A large wave is driving the small boat up into the air at a frightening angle, threatening to capsize at any moment. One man at the back of the boat struggles to hold the tiller to drive the boat at an angle into the wave, their only hope of staying afloat. We can see his strain and focus to stay on course.
In choosing this moment, before Jesus wakes and calms the sea, Rembrandt, with broad, thick brushwork moves us into the scene. We too can feel the wind, the fear, and the uncertainty as these seasoned sailors fight for their lives. We can feel their dread as the next wave breaks, and capsizing seems inevitable. It is important to feel the disciples palpable fear, so that we can fully appreciate their terror after the storm is stilled, as they look at Jesus and wonder, “Who is this man?”
The Sea of Galilee is known for the storms that can occur with no warning. Here the panic-stricken disciples fight to regain control of their fishing boat as the waves crash and the wind rips the sails. The craft draws perilously close to the rocks in the left foreground. From our perspective, the men are at the mercy of the sea.
As we stated earlier, Rembrandt uses the visible world to reveal deeper levels of meaning. The intended audience of this work would have been very familiar with the story and would know that in a few moments Jesus would be awakened, and with a few words would calm the sea.
The chaotic sea often represents evil which needs to be re-ordered, or re-created. The sea can be seen to represent the world that Rembrandt lived in, chaotic and frightening. As the storm rages, the viewer knows that soon Jesus will speak, and calm will be restored. Jesus will bring order back to the creation.
Dramatic lighting intensifies the precarious nature of the scene as the white foam of the waves testifies to the fury of the sea.
Rembrandt is known for using light to reveal the inner lives of men. In his portraits he often lit one side of his subjects’ faces, emphasizing the role they play in public, and painting the other half of their face in the shadows, revealing their inner thought lives.
In this work the dark foreboding sky intensifies the perilous nature of the scene, personifying the destructive storm as an evil to be conquered. The light breaks through on the left, highlighting the struggle and offering hope to those on board. Curiously, Jesus sits in the shadowed portion of the boat, sleeping, as the storm rages.
Rembrandt has painted this boat, tossed by the storm, on a strong diagonal, that creates movement and drama. Baroque artists were exploring how to make their works more dynamic. A key feature of the baroque style is to use diagonals and to push the action toward the front of the canvas. This approach contrasts sharply with the previous decades of the Renaissance that stressed balance, stability, and beauty. One way artist created this stable, balanced presentation was by moving the action to the center of the canvas and setting out the scene in almost a grid pattern. Rembrandt shifts the central elements onto the diagonal and forward on the canvas demonstrating his mastery of these new techniques.
Looking closer we can see that the mainsail of the ship is torn. Even with experienced sailors onboard, the disciples have lost their ability to control how the sail will catch the wind, negating much of their experience. Rembrandt has heightened the desperation of the situation, by painting in the broken rigging that is swinging wildly with a heavy metal block still attached.
As always though, Rembrandt is calling us to look deeper. To see how these physical struggles relate to the spiritual, internal lives of the men on this boat. You might have noticed that the mast of the ship forms a cross diagonally against the stormy sky. At this point in the gospel narrative the disciples believe they have found a new rabbi, in moments they will witness the stilling of the sea and realize that Jesus is more than a rabbi, he can command the winds and the sea. Therefore, this story is considered a major transitional moment, the disciples begin to understand that Jesus’ mission is more than they imagined. While they could not foresee the cross in Jesus future, the viewers of this painting would familiar with the symbol.
As the boat is tossed on the sea, representing the evil and chaos of life, the cross hints that faith and hope is still there for those who cry out to God.
Rembrandt has signed his name on the rudder of the ship.
I love how Rembrandt has incorporated the varied ways that humankind responds to violence and chaos. Each of the men in this painting realizes that death is eminent, yet each responds differently.
At the bow of the boat, we have five men battling with the rigging and a torn sail. Most likely these are the disciples who worked as fishermen and had some experience with the sudden storms that the Sea of Galilee was known for. Illuminated by the break in the clouds, they have not given up. Continuing to battle the winds and waves they focus what skills they possess to guiding the boat through the storm, we feel they will continue to fight to the end.
Another sailor, at the back of the boat, struggles to hold the tiller to drive the boat at an angle into the wave, their only hope of staying afloat. We can see his strain and focus as he tries to stay the course.
In the back of the boat, we have more disciples. In a realistic moment we have one vomiting over the side of the boat. I’m thinking if any voyage were to induce seasickness it would be this one. Another gapes at the oncoming wave with horror on his face. Two kneel, waking Jesus from sleep, appearing angry and distressed.
One disciple sits with his back to us, dressed in white with a hat upon his head. It has been suggested that this disciple has given up, accepted his fate and sits down to wait for the inevitable. If you look closely, you will see another disciple kneeling in front of Jesus with a faint halo around his head. Only this disciple and Jesus have halos, an interesting detail. Unlike the two disciples angrily waking Jesus, this disciple kneels in faith and waits for Jesus to act, his faith indicated by his halo.
Amidst this chaos, only Christ, at the right, remains calm, like the eye of the storm. Awakened by the disciples’ desperate pleas for help, he rebukes them: “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” and then rises to calm the fury of wind and waves. Nature’s upheaval is both cause and metaphor for the terror that grips the disciples, magnifying the emotional turbulence and thus the image’s dramatic impact
Amid the chaos, we have Christ, calm and seemingly unaffected by the storm raging around him. In moments we know that Jesus will command the winds and sea to “Be still.” Interestingly, after he calms the storm the disciple’s terror is now redirected to Jesus, in the last phrase of the story: “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
Finally, we come to the fourteenth man in the boat. Normally, this scene is depicted with 13 men, Christ and the 12 disciples. Rembrandt has painted himself into the scene, holding onto a rope and staring out at the viewer. This direct eye contact seems to invite us to place ourselves into the story, just as the artist has done.
Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee Pits Life Against Faith
In this stunning work Rembrandt has offered his viewers a multi-dimensional view into the faith journey of the disciples. We have men who continue to fight the battles life throws at them, men who have given up, men who are just sick, men who look to their leader, and a man who entrusts his life to Jesus. Only the halo hints that Rembrandt favors one choice over the others.
As a man who spent his life observing others I think here Rembrandt documents, with compassion, the various ways humankind deals with events outside of their control. It is a fascinating study, and one that should cause each of us to ask questions.
Footnote: Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee was Stolen
On March 18, 1990, the painting was stolen by thieves disguised as police officers. They broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, and stole this painting, along with twelve other works. The paintings have never been recovered, and it is considered the biggest art theft in history. The empty frames of the paintings still hang in their original location, waiting to be recovered. There is an interesting Netflix documentary (“This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist”) that takes a look at the story behind the theft of this painting.
Another of Rembrandt’s Biblical Narratives
If you would like to explore another of Rembrandt’s paintings here is the link to one about the dream that Saint Joseph has shortly after the birth of Christ. Again, Rembrandt has taken a slightly different view, presenting us with a nativity story that doesn’t include the baby. It’s curious.
If you prefer your Art History in video format please visit my Youtube Channel over at Kelly Bagdanov
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)
Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses
Professor William Koss, History of European Art Lecture series, Great Courses
Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)
Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)
National Gallery of Art website www.nga.gov
Metropolitan Museum of Art website www.metmuseum.org
The Getty Center www.getty.edu
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.