A battered ship in the darkness, waves looming all around, a crowd of men fearing for their lives:
it’s not just a famous biblical scene, it’s also the one set in Rembrandt’s famous artwork The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.
Calm in The Storm
The full title of this work is actually Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, but it has been shortened for all intents and purposes. Rembrandt van Rijn painted this piece in 1633, and it remained his only piece of art containing a maritime scene.
This painting prominently features a sailboat, tumbling around in the open water, surrounded by crashing waves. Inside the boat, Jesus Christ sits calmly as his disciples appear rattled by the storm around them. Various disciples clamber around for something to hold onto, and one retches off the side of the boat; in the back of the boat, several of them appear to be imploring Christ for something.
Among the disciples, Rembrandt also painted himself, looking directly at the viewer with his hand on his head. This is certainly Rembrandt, as it is identical to a small self portrait that he had painted around the same time.
Amidst the darkness and turbulence, Christ’s expression appears serene and unbothered, glowing slightly. The clouds appear to have parted slightly to the left of the boat, as light streams in past the sail, but behind them is a menacing gray sky.
This painting could be seen until 1990 at The Gardner Museum, but no more. In that year, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee was stolen along with a number of other paintings by men dressed as police officers. It has never been recovered, and so remains one of the largest and most successful art heists in history.
Rembrandt’s inspiration for this piece is fairly self-evident to anyone who is familiar with the Bible. In the New Testament, in the Book of Matthew, the Bible lays out exactly this scene. Christ and his disciples have boarded a ship, and they come upon a storm that pelts them with waves.
During this commotion, Christ has fallen asleep. The disciples wake him, and ask him to save them as they fear they will perish. Christ famously states, “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” before he exerts his force on the winds and the sea, resulting in great calm.
Rembrandt’s painting, of course, depicts the moments just before Christ quiets the turbulent waves. The wild brush strokes present in this piece are a departure from Rembrandt’s normally collected and precise style, a testament to the passion that went into creating this work.
Detail and Drama
Rembrandt was an important figure in the Baroque Period. This time in art was defined by elaborate scenes, opulent design, extreme detail, and an overarching sense of drama in every work. A cursory glance at any of Rembrandt’s work, but particularly The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, demonstrates how fully he meets these standards.
Artists like Carvaggio and Rubens were also masters of the Baroque style, incorporating a great deal of detail and movement into their works. This style extended beyond painting, though. Sculpture and architecture we also important vestiges of the Baroque period, similar in their grandeur and opulence to the art of the time. Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee gave life to one of the Bible’s most beloved passages; with luck, perhaps it will someday be recovered for posterity to behold.