June 29th 2019

“Christ on the Sea of Galilee”, circle of Tintoretto, c. 1570, National Gallery of Art, Washington.  This haunting and mysterious image appeals greatly to many disciples of Christ today.  You can find it on any number of Catholic websites.  Nobody knows for sure who painted it.  However, while its attribution to Tintoretto is now discounted, similarities with the work of Lambert Sustris who was a younger artist working in Venice suggest that he might be the artist. Mostly the is taken to be that of John 21, because, as in the gospel text, there are are 7 disciples in the boat and one disciple  is about to step overboard.  But there are some problems because although it is certainly Christ at the Sea of Galilee with the disciples in the boat but many of the details don’t fit.  In John 21, the disciples have fished all night and caught nothing, but then Jesus calls to them, as he stands on the beach and tells them to put out the nets one more time.   With the great catch of fish, the disciple whom Jesus loved recognises him and cries “It is the Lord!” and immediately Peter throws himself into the water to swim to Jesus.   But in this painting, there is no sign of great catch of fish. If anything they are still fishing because one of disciples leans over the edge of the boat and seems to be checking  a rather flimsy looking net.  Presumably it Peter who is has one foot on the water but it looks like he is stepping rather gingerly from the boat with arms outstretched as if he were about to walk on a tight rope.  He is not throwing himself in. And Jesus is not on the beach, he is actually walking on the water!  The artist picks out in white the little splashes made by his steps.  There is a strong wind too. The waves are high and the other disciples are trying to control the billowing sail.  And finally, it is a night scene.  Although there is light coming from the left, it is not yet day.   In fact, this is probably a painting of  the scene where Peter walks on the water in Matthew 14:22ff.  Jesus had made the disciples get into a boat and go before him while he went up on a mountain to pray.  But the wind is against them and they cannot land and, In the fourth watch of the night, that is just before dawn, Jesus comes to them walking on the water.  They think he is a ghost, but he calls to them, “Take heart it is I,  have no fear.”   Then Peter says,  “Lord if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.”  Jesus says, ”Come”  and Peter walks towards him but then he grows afraid and begins to sink.  Jesus holds out his hand to him, saying, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?”    To my eye,  this is that scene in the fourth watch of the night.  Jesus is walking on the water, and he is gesturing towards the disciple, who must surely  be Peter.   The figure of Christ looks rather ghostly which fits as at first the disciples thought he was a ghost. Analysis shows that the artist achieved this ghostly by deliberately painting a thin glaze of white over the red and blue of Christ’s garments.  In this period artists in Venice began to experiment.  For example, the artist Jacopo Bassano emerged as a very successful specialist in night scenes.  I think the appeal of this painting to modern eyes of faith, is that it seems to capture our experience of the Church we know and love being at sea in a stormy world.   We are more aware of our shortcomings as the Church and yet we believe in the Church. The opposition we face seems stronger too so that we are  less sure footed than we once were.  It is surely timely for each of us  to hear again and take to heart his words to Peter: “Take heart, it is I, have no fear.”


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

Read more