Conversatio Divina

Part 11 of 17

A Meditation on Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee

O Taste and See

Juliet Benner

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) was born in Leiden, the Netherlands. A very successful artist with many commissioned works, Rembrandt is considered to be the greatest artist of the Dutch school. His masterful use of light and dark, especially in his religious masterpieces, capture not only the drama of biblical events but also the psychological and spiritual mood as well. Religious or biblical subjects comprise a third of his works.

Living his life in a seafaring nation, Rembrandt knew well the power of the sea and the dramatic storms of the northern European coasts. His interpretation of Jesus asleep in the boat in the storm reflects his personal experience of this. Burdened with familial and financial pressures, with personal misfortunes and sorrows later in life, Rembrandt vividly depicts the inner emotional drama of the disciples in his painting. We cannot see clearly in this print all of the details, but it seems that Rembrandt has inscribed his own name on the rudder of the boat. Could he be reflecting his own place in this boat and his own response to Jesus’ question addressed to the disciples?

Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee (1633) is supposedly Rembrandt’s only seascape. It is fairly large, 5.3 feet by 4.2 feet, and belongs to the Isabella Stewart Garner Museum in Boston. Unfortunately, this painting was stolen in 1990 and has not yet been recovered.

There arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up. Jesus Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. (Mark 4:37–38, NASB, 1995All Scripture quotations marked are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission. (

How often do we find ourselves rushing through our busy lives without even a glance toward God, without noticing that he is right in the middle of it? Sometimes we have no trouble at all seeing God in our lives—times of blessing, order, peace, joy. But it is usually much harder when life becomes disordered or troubled or when we are at our wits’ end. We may then cry out to God, asking where he is. We may feel abandoned by God. It is very hard to discern God’s presence in our lives, sometimes even to believe it. Yet Scripture assures us God will never leave us nor forsake us and loves us with such a fierce love, nothing can separate us from the God behind that love.

In Psalm 119:66 the psalmist prays to God, “Teach me good discernment and knowledge, for I believe in Thy commandments.” Central to Ignatian spirituality is the practice of the examen, a prayer of discernment at the end of each day that helps us to see the ways in which God has been present or absent from our daily lives. When practiced regularly, this prayer of attending to God’s presence opens our eyes to new ways of recognizing God’s presence, God’s attempts to catch our attention, through the day. It sharpens our awareness and clears our vision so we learn to discern where God is in our lives every day. It is as simple as sitting in silence and asking God to show us where he has been in the day, then thanking God for those gifts of presence. In that same contemplative posture, we then ask God where we have missed or ignored his presence. Finally, we ask for forgiveness for those times and for help to do better in being aware the next day.

01.  At Sea With the Lord

What if the disciples, who were tossed about on the stormy Sea of Galilee, had practiced examen at the end of their frightening day? Would they have looked back and recognized that Jesus, the One who is Lord of the winds and the waves, was with them from the start, and would they have regretted their lack of faith? How would they have responded if they had recognized that Jesus, who was with them, was able to still the turbulent waters? Would they have turned to him for help earlier?

The cover art for this issue is by Rembrandt and depicts the story of the disciples’ terror and panic during the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Turn to the story in Mark 4:35-41. Read it slowly and contemplatively, placing yourself in the boat with the terrified disciples, entering fully into the story. Notice what insights come to your attention, staying with whatever gifts God gives you, and be thankful.

Mark’s account situates this event after Jesus had been teaching both his disciples and the multitude about the kingdom of God. Immediately following this, they left the crowd to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee in a boat. On their way, “a fierce gale of wind” arose, and “the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up.” Through all this turmoil, Jesus, probably exhausted from his day full of teaching and interacting with the multitudes, fell asleep on a pillow. His terrified disciples shook him awake, and with voices full of fear, possibly rebuke, they asked, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Once awake, Jesus immediately stilled the wind and the high seas with his words, “Hush, be still.” As calm returned and peace was restored, he penetrated their questioning hearts. He asked, “Why are you so timid? How is it that you have no faith?” At this, their fear returned, but it was a different fear. It was a reverential fear of the awesome One whom the wind and the sea obey.

02.  Taking Time to Contemplate

Now turn your attention to Rembrandt’s painting of the scene on the front cover of the journal. Take some time to look carefully at the details of the event as depicted here. With your own imagination fired by your reading of the text, notice what most immediately and powerfully grabs your attention. How does the scene that may have formed in your mind shift or change as you look at this painting?

You may have been initially struck by the dramatic use of light and dark that divides the canvas into two distinct parts. To emphasize the contrast, the towering mast, resembling a cross, pitches upward in a powerful diagonal. On the left is the brighter, stormier side. On the right it is very dark, yet there seems to be some stillness where Jesus is.

Let us first look together at the left half of the painting. The boat heaves on the crest of a massive wave, churning from the gale-force winds. Rembrandt theatrically captures on his canvas the wind-whipped waves, foaming white and spewing spray in the yellow light. The boat is tossed about so much that some of its rigging seems to have snapped off and is flapping around high overhead.

The men on the foredeck wrestle and struggle to keep the boat from capsizing. The disciples themselves are blown about by the winds, the one working on the central mast trying for all he is worth to reattach the violently torn and tattered mainsail that seems to be about to take off. An oar and grappling hook flail about as well, on the verge of being lost to the waves. One can almost hear the savage flapping of sails and cloaks, the creaking of masts and hull, and the howling whistle of the tempestuous winds. In this depiction by Rembrandt, it is easy for us to enter into the palpable horror and dreadful alarm experienced by the disciples.

Severe storms such as this one were reputedly common in the Sea of Galilee. They were known to spring up out of nowhere under the calmest conditions, suddenly bursting upon any unfortunate sailing vessels in the region. Rembrandt stays true to the text, showing the waves rising over the front of the boat and beginning to fill it. The light on the left side of the painting, illuminating the thunderous clouds above, is an eerie yellow, but it highlights the plight of the men on board as they grapple with the uncontrollable elements.

03.  Finding Jesus in Your Boat

Rembrandt places Jesus in the shadowed side of the painting. He is being shaken awake on the shoulder by one of the disciples. Others look intently at Jesus as they await his reaction to their situation. Another sits with tiller in hand and tries to steady the boat. One in the foreground leans over the side of the boat. Is he checking out the damaged condition of the boat, or is he possibly seasick and vomiting over the edge?

In spite of the darkness, the faces of the men on this side are lit by the same eerie yellow light. On this side of the gigantic wave, it is relatively calm. Compared to the turbulence in the front of the boat, it is quiet here. The panic that is externally expressed in the men in the bright half seems to be more internalized here in the darker half of the painting. We do not sense terror in their postures. What we sense is more of a focused intentionality in their action of waking Jesus. Notice in the text that they do not ask Jesus to calm the storm but seem angry at his seemingly uncaring attitude to them. Could their postures convey a sense of reproach toward Jesus?

Jesus is perfectly at peace in the stern of the boat and sleeps soundly during this terrific storm. His total trust in his heavenly Father stands in stark contrast to the frantic struggles of his disciples. His question to them about their lack of faith is an invitation to them to abandon control, to trust him completely and not be afraid. His question to them is also to us in our particular distress. Why do we fear? Why do we have so little faith? How long do we wait before turning to him for help? Far from being uncaring or aloof, Jesus is actually in the boat with his disciples. He is in our boat too.

Pause for a moment and reflect on where Jesus is in your “boat.” You may have trouble seeing in the dark, or you may find that your situation is exposed to the glaring light of day. Is he asleep or unconcerned? Is he present in the darkness? What does the light reveal to you about your own struggles to stay afloat?

With the cruciform mast looming high overhead and casting its shadow over the dark side of the painting, we are reminded of Psalm 107:23–30, where the psalmist describes the perils of the sea and the terror of the sailors who stagger like drunken men and are “at their wits’ end” as the boat heaves about in the stormy waves. At the same time, we may also recall that Scriptures remind us that darkness and light are the same to God. He is present in both if we would only recognize him and turn to him in faith and trust. Our safety and deliverance are found only beneath the shadow of his cross.

Place yourself in the boat with the disciples. Where would you place yourself in this painting? What sounds do you hear? What does it feel like to be in such a storm?

In each of our lives, storms are inevitable. What are the storms in your life at this moment? Does God seem uninvolved, absent, or asleep during your struggles? Are you ever tempted to lose faith during these times?

What are you afraid of today? How can you discern the presence of God in the midst of this? Imagine yourself as one of the men in the boat who shakes Jesus awake. What are his words to you personally? How do you respond to him?

Pause for a few moments to review your day. Where do you notice God’s presence or absence in it? Thank him for the times when you recognized him. Ask forgiveness for the times you may have missed him. Ask for the gift of discernment to see him in your day tomorrow. Live each day with the assurance that Jesus is constantly with you in every aspect of your life—in joy and in pain—and allow him to take the helm of control over your life.

Attend to the words of Charles Wesley’s (1707–1788) hymn. As you become aware of the state of your own soul in the midst of struggle, allow these words to penetrate deep into your heart. Rest in the assurance that the peace and calm that Jesus promises will be yours. Worship him who controls the wind and the waves, and rest in his love.

Lord of earth, and air, and sea,
Supreme in power and grace,
Under thy protection, we
Our souls and bodies place.
Bold an unknown land to try,
We launch into the foaming deep;
Rocks, and storms, and deaths defy,
With Jesus in the ship.

Who the calm can understand
In a believer’s breast?
In the hollow of his hand
Our souls securely rest:
Winds may rise, and seas may roar,
We on his love our spirits stay;
Him with quiet joy adore,
Whom winds and seas obey.


Juliet Benner is a spiritual director with a special interest in the use of icons and religious art as aids to prayer. She and her husband live on Vancouver Island in Canada and regularly lead retreats throughout North America, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand, and Europe. She can be contacted by e-mail at

Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons