‘Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee’
Jan Brueghel the Elder
Museo Nacional - Madrid
Brueghel illustrates this episode from the public life of Christ in which he calmed the waters on the Sea of Galilee. The story is recounted in three of the four Gospels.
The artist depicts the boat, lashed by waves, with Christ asleep inside, at the moment when one of the Disciples decides to wake him before they are all shipwrecked. The other eleven Disciples make every effort not to be sunk by rowing and attempting to manage the sails.
While paying considerable attention to the main motif, Brueghel also focuses on the setting, using a high viewpoint and offering a broad panorama of the coastline that effectively combines real with imaginary elements.
Brueghel uses a rich colour range with an emphasis on green, blue and grey tones that contrast with the intense and vibrant reds of the Apostles’ tunics and with the yellows and the pinks of other clothing.
The remarkable quality of the minutely detailed brushstroke is evident in all the details that fill this painting, for example the faces of the figures, and the care and delicacy in the depiction of the jagged coastline and the buildings of a large city evident in the distance.
Mark 4: 26-34
“35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side’. 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’
A division of the text can help us to understand this passage:
· Mark 4: 35-36: Jesus decides to cross over to the other side of the lake;
· Mark 4: 37-38: A sudden storm endangers the lives of all;
· Mark 4: 39-40: Jesus calms the storm and criticizes the lack of faith of his Disciples;
· Mark 4: 41: Fear and lack of understanding on the part of the Disciples.
Mark has just narrated two parables that bring out the mystery of the Kingdom present in the ordinary things of life. Now He begins to talk of the mystery of the Kingdom as present in the power exercised by here by Jesus for his Disciples, then for people in general, and finally, for the excluded and the marginalized.
Mark begins by presenting a ‘Jesus’ who overcomes the power of the sea, which traditionally in the Scriptures was a symbol of chaos. In Jesus there is the power of a Creator!. Immediately after this, Jesus overcomes and drives out evil spirits. In him there is a liberating power. Finally, Mark describes at some length the way that Jesus overcomes sin and death. In Jesus there is the power of life,a creating power that liberates and communicates life to those who approach him.
The Christian Community of Saint Mark
Saint Mark is writing for the persecuted Christian Communities of the A.D. 70’s, who feel like a small boat lost on the sea of life, with little hope of being able to reach tranquil waters. Jesus seems to be asleep in their boat, because they do not feel His divine power able to save them from persecution. In that desperate situation, Mark brings together various passages that underline the power with which Jesus is present in the Communities. He is the victorious Jesus. They need not fear. This is the aim of the story of the calming of the storm.
It had been a heavy day with much work
There were so many people that Jesus, so as not to be crushed by the crowd, had to go into a boat and began to teach them by means of parables. There were days when there was not even time to eat. When He finished telling the people parables, Jesus said to his Disciples: “Let us cross over to the other side!” And there and then, they took Him in the boat. Jesus was so tired that He lay down and went to sleep. This is the first scene that Mark presents to us. A beautiful, and very human, picture.
A desperate situation
“Do you not care? We are lost!” The Sea of Galilee suffers from sudden storms and this is evidently what happened here. The boat filled with water! Although the Disciples were experienced fishermen, the situation caused them great fright and they thought they were about to perish. Jesus is not aware of anything untoward and goes on sleeping. The contrast between Jesus and the Disciples could not be greater.
The reaction of Jesus
“Have you still no faith?” Jesus wakes up with the desperate cries of the Disciples: “Master! Do you not care? We are lost!” He faces the sea and says: “Quiet now! Be calm!” And the sea calms down. Then, He turns to his Disciples and says to them: “Why are you so frightened? Have you still no faith?” There was obviously no need to be afraid because the Master was there with them and would take care of them, whatever.
Old Testament reminiscences
The passage of the calming of the storm recalls the Exodus event, when the People of Israel, crossed the waters of the Red Sea without any difficulty. Again, it recalls when the Prophet Isaiah said to the crowds: “Should you pass through the waters; I shall be with you!”.
Jesus fulfils the words of the Psalmist: “They cried out to Yahweh in their distress, He rescued them from their plight, He reduced the storm to a calm, and all the waters subsided, and He brought them, overjoyed at the stillness, to the port where they were bound!”
A question of Faith
The Disciples do not appear to know who Jesus truly is: “Who can this be?” Jesus calms the sea and then questions their faith. The Disciples do not know appear to know what to say in reply, and rather ask themselves “Who can this be? Even the wind and the sea obey him!”
Despite the long time spent together, the Disciples do not really know who He is: Son of God.
Names and titles given to Jesus
Mark begins his Gospel with the words: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God”. At the end of the Gospel, at the time of the death of Jesus, a pagan soldier exclaims: “In truth this man was Son of God!” Thus both at the beginning and the end of the Gospel, Mark describes Jesus as ‘Son of God’. Between the beginning and the end of the Gospel, however, more than twenty other names and titles are attributed to Jesus! None of these, apart from being the Son of God, can exhaust his identity: for each name, title or attribute is but an attempt to express an aspect of the person of Jesus as the God-made-man.
give us the strength and courage
to follow your Son, Jesus;
the wisdom and understanding to know His ways;
and do not allow weakness and fear
to take control of our lives.
May we surrender to Him
and allow Him to be the sole master of our lives.
He who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen”.
There are days when life can appear like a small boat tossed about by the waves of a rough sea. Everything around looks dark and foreboding. God is hidden. Jesus seems absent. There is no one close at hand to help or encourage. Everything appears lost!
We now imagine we are in the boat with Jesus and the Disciples. We are with them and experience what is happening. We see the attitude of Jesus and the reaction of the Disciples.
· What pleased you most in this text and why?
· What do you feel about the situation Jesus and his Disciples find themselves in, and what of their reaction?
· What was the ‘stormy sea’ Mark is alluding to in his Gospel? Is there a ‘stormy sea’ in your life today?
The Gospel of Mark constrains us to review our ideas about Discipleship, and to ask ourselves once again: ‘Who is Jesus for me? What name can give Him?’