This is Rembrandt’s first and only seascape. It was painted in 1633, which was early on in his career and shortly after his move from Leiden to Amsterdam. It is signed and dated but the details of the commission are now lost. Rembrandt shows the prow of the boat forced upwards by the waves, so that the whole vessel is on a tilt. To add to the drama the boat is perilously close to some rocks which are just visible on the left. In Amsterdam of the 1630’s, seascapes were becoming popular, but this subject was unusual. That said, he might have known a similar scene by Rubens and probably knew an earlier treatment of the same subject by Maerten de Vos (1532 – 1603), through a print. If this print was one of his sources, a comparison of the two, serves to show Rembrandt’s genius.
One particular detail suggests that he knew the de Vos print (above). There is a man in red who is being sick over the side of the boat. The de Vos print has the same detail. But Rembrandt’s treatment of the subject is very different. Most strikingly, he lowers the viewpoint so that he can make full use of the sky and also show the dramatic tilting of the boat. The light from the patch of clear sky catches the brightly-clad disciples and the foaming of the waves. Rembrandt conveys the violence of the storm in various ways. But it is the expressions on the faces of the disciples which draw in the viewer. If you zoom in online you can see their panic, desperation, sickness, despair and also courage In contrast to those who struggle with the sails, others are found lower down in the shadows and nearer to the viewer in a haven of relative calm which is centred on Christ. It is as if he were the still point at the centre of the storm. Of course, the scene depicted is not that of the sea storm in today’s gospel, but rather than told in Matthew 8:23 -27 and in Mark 4: 35-41. Rembrandt has Jesus being woken from sleep. He suggests Mark’s cushion and shows the boat filling with water.
The power of Rembrandt’s interpretation comes from the sweeping contrast between left and right. There is a shift from agitation to calm, between huge threatening waves and the much calmer sea beyond the boat on the right. Above the dark clouds recede to the right as the sky clears from the left. Christ rules the waves almost unseen from this haven of calm but soon he will be fully visible the clouds recede. The miracle that is about to happen is suggested by the way he uses light and shadow to convert the movement the storm. Rembrandt includes contemporary details to add to the impact. The boat was a contemporary fishing vessel known as a hoeker. Notice that a harpoon sticks out on the left even if whaling was not common on the Sea of Galilee! Actually the details of the boat are not quite right. But Rembrandt was not the sort of artist who would tie himself the a ship’s mast in pursuit of authenticity! His details are merely props to draw his viewers into the drama.
At the front of the boat and along the centre line of the canvas there is a figure dressed in bright blue. He stares out at us. This is Rembrandt himself. With one hand, he grips a stay rope, and with the other, he keeps his hat on. It wasn’t unusual for an artist to paint himself as an onlooker at some event. But here the artist is a participant in the drama. He too is in the boat. About this time he also included himself in his “The Elevation of the Cross” (below).
He is shown as one an executioners. In that work Rembrandt grips the bottom of the cross and helps raise it up from the earth. Here it is the boat and the apostles which are being raised up by waves. Christ is on the cross and in the boat, and in each it is he who will save those in peril. We are not in the boat. We are not participants. We might be in the water! But it is significant that Rembrandt has put himself at the centre. Rembrandt’s looks out at us, standing on the edge of the pool of stillness around the figure of Christ. Is he inviting us to enter into that same stillness which is faith in Christ, particularly when the storms of our lives threaten to overwhelm us. In the years that followed, Rembrandt himself certainly had his fair share of them.
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.