Rembrandt - Christ in the storm on the Sea of Galilee

by Alexandra Tuschka


"And when he had got into the boat, his disciples followed him.


And behold, a violent storm arose on the lake, so that the boat was covered by the waves; but he was asleep. And they came along and woke him up, saying: Lord, save us; we are perishing!


And he saith unto them: Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith ? Then he arose and threatened the winds and the lake; and there was a great silence.


And the people marveled, saying, What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the lake obey him?" Mt 23 - 27


The fishing boat, like a nutshell, drifts on the stormy sea. The waves beat high, spray reaches the inside of the ship, the men have every effort to tighten the sails. In the left foreground, a rock comes menacingly close. On the left, the ship's buk rises into the air. All the men react completely differently to the great danger. While many of them try to save the boat, others have awakened Jesus in the right part of the picture and plead for rescue. Jesus rises, calmed sea and wind in seconds. He is surprised, however, at the panic of his disciples, recognizing that they are questioning divine guidance.

Although the composition seems chaotic at first, it is well thought out. The mast towers over the scene and draws the viewer's gaze into the boat's interior, from here some lines point to Jesus. He, however, is in the dark, only a blurred nimbus illuminates his head. The Savior has just awakened and is amazed at the panic on the boat. This calm is cleverly contrasted with the hectic hustle and bustle. The very idea that Jesus could be asleep in such a situation is enough to make us smile.


Contrary to the biblical source text, not 13 men have gathered on the boat, the 12 disciples and Jesus, but 14. Rembrandt, whom we find here as a so-called self-portrait "in assistenza" has scurried into the boat shortly before departure. Does he want to pretend to be the 13th disciple? At least he is the only one who makes eye contact with us and mediates between the grounds of the picture. Also, such a self-portrait "in assistenza" can be understood like a signature, a tradition that is already over 100 years old in 1633, when this work was created. The painter also holds on tightly to the rope and makes sure that the cap does not get lost.

The left part of the painting is brightly illuminated by the ray of light shining through the now open cloud cover. In contrast, in the darker part of the picture on the right, we find Jesus in the midst of a group of men. All the men can be interpreted as counterweights to each other, balancing the composition and each being at the same depth in the picture. At the lowest point in the space are two men, one of whom is holding the sail, and the other is throwing his cloak around him out of fear. Two other men are found above and below, representing the outermost weights as if on a seesaw, keeping the boat balanced. The two men who oppress Jesus correspond to those who "oppress" the mast; in both situations, out of desperation, the solution is sought outside. Just as the mast is the elementary object that gives support, Jesus becomes the protective subject to whom one "clings" in distress. Opposed to the striving outward are two other persons who turn inward; one is praying, the other is only to be seen in the so-called "profile perdu", thus not clearly recognizable at an activity. His calm appearance in this situation, however, can plausibly be interpreted as an inner contemplation. Then, on the very outside, there are two men who subtly overcome the ship's boundaries. One in red has to throw up, the other in yellow reaches for a rope. Closest to the viewer, then, is the "stowaway" Rembrandt, to whom no compositional counterpart exists.


In this situation, several moments coincide. The left part of the picture is brightly illuminated, here there is no trace of the turning to Jesus. This part is framed by three composition lines and forms a very unstable triangle. On the right, on the other hand, the part of the picture is in shadow, here the sea already seems calmer, the composition lines here form a stable triangle. The open sky on the left can be interpreted as an already heard command of Jesus, just awakened, the end of the storm is also already in sight and throws light, that is hope, on the men engaged in battle. The mast naturally bears resemblance to a cross and may indicate Jesus' impending fate.


This work was created in Rembrandt's 26th year, 1633, shortly after his move to Amsterdam, where he quickly made a name for himself with, among other things, the painting of the "Anatomy of Dr. Tulp". It was to remain his only seascape of the entire ouevre. Little is known about the circumstances of the work's creation. This biblical story is a metaphor about faith in times when the outside world threatens to collapse. The fact that Jesus can remain calm in this situation and is astonished by the panic of his disciples can only be attributed to his absolute trust in divine providence, which he also wants to grant to people. The reactions, again absolutely human, shown here nevertheless make it easy for the viewer to identify with them while being reminded that there is another source of security.


The painting became part of an art heist in 1990, when two men dressed as policemen managed to overpower the guards. Thus, to this day, we have no information about the whereabouts of this and the other stolen works. Only a lone frame reminds us of its former placement in the Stewart Gardner Museum.


Rembrandt - Christ in the Storm

Oil on canvas, 1633, 160 x 128 cm, lost


Rembrandt - Youthful self-portrait as a warrior

Oil on canvas, c. 1629, 37.9 x 28.9 cm