Rembrandt’s Sea of Galilee and Cynewulf’s Christ II

My fiance’s favorite painting is Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.

This painting is beautiful. I was not aware of it until he pointed it out during a documentary on the painting’s loss during an art heist in 1990.

A slight beam of light from the sun shines through dark stormy clouds onto a sailing ship filled with Christ and his disciples. The ship is rolling over the crest of foamy, angry waves. Christ leans back peacefully in the shadows and darkness at the back of the ship, surrounded by pleading disciples, one is even retching over the side. The sunbeam shines on those few trying to work the mast and sails at the front of the ship, which is at the top of the crest of angry waves.

Christ and his disciples in a sailing boat that is cresting over stormy waves.

I thought of this painting while reading Cynewulf’s 9th century (estimate, we are not entirely positive on the date) Old English poem Christ II, which is about the ascension of Christ. Nearly at the end of the poem, Cynewulf uses the sea and sailing as a metaphor for the Christian journey toward salvation in Christ:

on þas gæsnan tid         georne biþencen.
850Nu is þon gelicost         swa we on laguflode
ofer cald wæter         ceolum liðan
geond sidne sæ,         sundhengestum,
flodwudu fergen.         Is þæt frecne stream
yða ofermæta         þe we her on lacað
855geond þas wacan woruld,         windge holmas
ofer deop gelad.         Wæs se drohtað strong
ærþon we to londe         geliden hæfdon
ofer hreone hrycg.         þa us help bicwom,
þæt us to hælo         hyþe gelædde,
860godes gæstsunu,         ond us giefe sealde
þæt we oncnawan magun         ofer ceoles bord
hwær we sælan sceolon         sundhengestas,
ealde yðmearas,         ancrum fæste.

** The Old English Poems of Cynewulf, Bjork’s translation edition from Dumbarton Oaks, 2013

we should earnestly consider the state of our soul.
Now it is most like that we on the sea-flood
sail in ships over cold water
throughout the broad sea, in sea-steeds,
travel in wood floaters. The stream is dangerous,
the waves without end that we toss on here
throughout the mutable world, windy the billows
over the deep waterway. The plight was hard
before we had sailed to land
over the rough ocean ridge. Then help came to us,
that led us to salvation in the harbor,
the spiritual Son of God, and gave us the gift
that we might know over the ship’s side
where we must moor our sea-steeds.

There are many places in this section of Old English poetry that are reflective of Rembrandt’s Sea of Galilee painting; however, the line that strikes me the most is: that we might know over the ship’s side

This line draws the eyes to the disciple leaning over the side of the ship. Perhaps he is not retching but is looking to where the ship can moor.

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