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Lament for a Stolen Rembrandt

Updated: Mar 13, 2022

This is Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), the only seascape Rembrandt ever painted. The story he drew on appears in the New Testament Gospel of Mark. Jesus and his closest followers were caught at sea by a nighttime squall. The crew eventually feared the worst and turned to Jesus for help, who was sleeping near the stern at the time. Getting up from his makeshift bed, Jesus stilled the storm with a single command. His disciples were awestruck, and left suddenly unsure that they truly understood this man.

When looking at an artist's rendering of a famous story, I'm always interested in how they treat the subject. The most dramatic moment in the story is when Jesus calms the sea, and that has been captured in paint loads of times. Rembrandt did something different. He put us in the moment right after the disciples woke Jesus from his nap but before the miracle takes place. A good chunk of the crew has abandoned hope in saving themselves and turned to him for deliverance. That’s obviously a metaphor central to Christian belief. I’m not sermonizing there. But I think Rembrandt set out to dramatize that metaphor so it needed to be mentioned. The painting’s action sets up their call for rescue. With its torn sail and broken rigging, the ship is all but at the sea’s mercy. Some crewmembers are still trying to fight the waves, one is vomiting over the side near the stern, another stares out in resignation straight at us (likely a self-portrait), and one is straining with all he has against the rudder. Every effort they make is futile. And, while every face has terror or desperation all over it, Jesus appears serene and calm. So should Rembrandt have painted the climactic scene of Jesus calming the waves rather than the instant just before? I’m glad he didn’t. I think by painting it this way he put emphasis on the mortal need for deliverance. To feel a bit hopeless or desperate for help is very human, it’s something we’ve all felt. Maybe we’ve even been the deliverer in someone else’s moment of despair. I love how in this painting, we can feel both roles.

This painting was once in the possession of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Today its location is unknown. That’s because on March 18, 1990, two men disguised as police officers bluffed their way into the museum under the pretense of investigating a disturbance. They overcame the two guards, roamed the halls for about 80 minutes, and made off with several pieces of the collection. One of the stolen paintings was Storm on the Sea of Galilee. They cut the canvas from its frame with a razor knife and probably rolled it up for transport. There was also a Vermeer, several Degas sketches, a couple other Rembrandts, and a Manet among the haul. None of the art has ever been recovered and today it is the most valuable unsolved art theft in history. I still hold out hope for its recovery but it’s been 30 years. And since the FBI believes the two thieves are both dead, I have to wonder if there’s anyone left alive who knows where it is.

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