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Rembrandt Is in the Wind

[The following is an excerpt from my essay by the same title in the forthcoming Molehill, Vol. III.]

Rembrandt is in the wind.

The sea surges and swells. The little fishing boat has no hope of holding on to the churning foam below. The bow rides up the back of one white breaker while the stern dips in the valley beneath it and the next.  Waves break over the sides. The half dozen men to Rembrandt’s right shout and strain at the sails, struggling to keep the ship from capsizing. The five men to his left plead with Jesus of Nazareth to save them. Rembrandt stands in the middle of the boat, his right hand tightly clutching a rope, and his left pinning his hat to his head. His name is scrawled across the useless rudder, as though this is his boat on his sea and they are all caught in his storm. He and everyone else in the ship are soon to be lost unless their leader intervenes.

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt’s only known seascape, is one of his most dramatic paintings, capturing that moment just after the disciples knew they would die if Jesus didn’t save them and just before he did.

The five foot by four foot canvas hung in the Dutch Room on the second floor of the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum for close to one hundred years. Everyone who looked at it saw the same thing; Rembrandt looking out through the frame to us—looking us dead in the eye. The terror on his face asked us what the disciples were asking Jesus: “Don’t you care that we’re perishing here?”

Rembrandt, who was known even to his own contemporaries as “The Master,” was as much a storyteller as he was a painter. He cared about the narratives behind his paintings, and he painted them to tell as much of the story as he could in a single frame. One way he did this was by painting himself into several ubiquitous Biblical scenes. He did this not for vanity but for the sake of the story. He wanted to draw us in, capture our imaginations, instruct us on how we should relate to what was happening on the canvas, and bear witness to what he believed to be true about the world he painted and his place in it.

For example, in The Raising of the Cross, Rembrandt strains with three other men to lift the cross of Jesus into its base. He and Jesus are the only two men not draped in shadow. The contrast between them is stark. Jesus is naked, pale, and bloody; Rembrandt is wearing a rich man’s clean, blue robe and matching beret. Rembrandt wants us to know that while he believed all people had a hand in Jesus’s crucifixion (as seen in the array of soldiers, peasants, politicians, and faceless figures hidden in the shadows), as far as he is concerned, the one whose guilt shines brightest in that affair is his own.

In his painting, The Prodigal Son in the Tavern, Rembrandt is the glassy-eyed, drunk younger brother looking at us over his left shoulder as he holds a pint in one hand and a woman in the other. The woman in the painting is his wife, Saskia. By painting himself into this scene, Rembrandt confesses his great capacity for folly as well as his imminent need for mercy. We look on with a mix of pity and compassion. We know what the man in the story has squandered and what he has left behind. We know how his world is about to crumble. But we also know that his father loves him and is probably scanning the horizon for that young man’s return even at that very moment. And we know the prodigal will return to his father’s love, but not before he breaks.

By painting himself into the boat in The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt wants us to know that he believes his life will either be lost in a sea of chaos or preserved by the Son of God. Those are his only two options. And by peering through the storm and out of the frame to us, he asks if we are not in the same boat.

Do we know that we are perishing? Do we care?



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