In 1833 Mendelssohn composed two overtures inspired by the sea. ‘Fingal’s Cave’ portrays the gentle roll of the waves and the call of the wind on the waters around Staffa. ‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’ paints a sea journey when the fog lifts, the sky clears, the safety of land beckons, and the boat arrives in the harbour.
The painting ‘Christ at the Sea of Galilee’ by Tintoretto shows us a very different picture of the sea. He was an Italian painter of the Renaissance period who worked in Venice until his death in 1594. All his paintings are marked by intensity and drama, whether it is the Last Supper, the Conversion of St Paul, or this canvas. Tintoretto worked so quickly and so single-mindedly that he was nicknamed ‘Il Furioso.’ And it is the fury of the sea that is captured here. Not the lazy waters of Venice or the calm seas of Mendelssohn’s music. Now the sea and the sky above are in torment and revolt, and the world is dominated by the violence of this storm.
The Sea of Galilee is like that. One moment, the sky is clear and windless, the next, a gust can whip up the waters into anger. In Scripture the sea is always an element to fear. For the psalmist the sea contains creeping things innumerable and even monsters. For John in the book of Revelation, the sea ceases to exist when the new heaven and the new earth appear. The threat of that element is pervasive in this painting. The sail of the boat bends with the raging of the wind, and the vessel is tossed up and down – so near the shore, and yet so far. Above, the clouds frown.
But enfolding the scene are two signs of hope and life. To one side we see a tall tree in leaf and growing. At the other side is the tall figure of Jesus: a sign of safety and hope to the disciples, floundering in the boat. His feet are just vague outlines in the water, but His hand is firm as He beckons to His followers. Peter, brave and headstrong as ever, begins to climb out of the boat with no immediate sense of danger.
June ended with his feast day when we celebrated a saint who was so much like us. Wanting to follow Jesus, but finding himself weak; eager to serve, but unable to back words up with deeds. And yet, through all that, God’s grace triumphed in Peter’s life. We know that he will be saved here as he steps onto the wild water to reach Jesus.
This raging element is a parable of life with its storms and challenges for Peter and for all of us. Just as the sea threatens to swallow the boat and the disciples in it, so we know how the world threatens to swallow us up. Each of us, in our discipleship, faces concerns and challenges, anxieties about the present, even despair about the future. Tintoretto is saying to us from this canvas, ‘Reach out and take hold of the sure hand of our Lord’. That will be an anchor for you when the sea of life is calm and when the storm rages. ‘Will your anchor hold?’ asks the hymn, and we can reply:
We have an anchor that keeps the soul,
Steadfast and sure while the billows roll;
Fastened to the rock which cannot move,
Grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love.’
The feature image for this post is “Jacopo Tintoretto (Italian, 1518 – 1594 ), Christ at the Sea of Galilee, c. 1575/1580, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection”, Wikicommons (P.D.)