Still the waters

A friend today reminded me of the spectacular art heist from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In 1990, art thieves managed to steal thirteen precious works of art from the museum, including three Rembrandts, five Degas, a Vermeer and a Manet. I’m tempted to say the works of art are priceless, but in fact there has been a price tag attached to the heist – a cool half billion dollars.

It’s been nearly thirty years since the art was taken, and amazingly, it’s still missing. My friend, who was in the museum recently, said the frames still stand empty, still waiting for their return. And my wife, who grew up in Boston before they were stolen, said she remembers going to museum as a kid and being shown the pictures — Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm of Galilee” in particular.

Talking about the artwork made me want to go look for what is missing — online, of course (I’m no art detective). And it’s that Rembrandt painting of the Galilee that caught me the most.

If you’re not familiar with it, I’ll post it here. It’s not like you’re going to get a chance to see it in a museum anytime soon, anyhow:

Rembrandt The Storm on the Sea of GalileeI’ll leave to people who actually know stuff about art to comment on things like the use of light and dark, brush strokes, angles and the like. I could say a few things, but there are others who do it so much better. Like my wife!

I would, however, like to give this some historical context.

Like absolutely everyone, Rembrandt was a product of his place and time. More specifically, we’re talking Amsterdam at the height of its Golden Age. It was a time when the tiny, emerging nation of the Netherlands, a republic (!), was ascending to become one of the most powerful players on the global stage. From its harbors in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Middleburg, Delft, Hoorn and Enkhuisen, the upstart power commanded a fleet of ships able to take on more established powers like Spain, Portugal and England. And in those turbulent years, with the endless shifting of alliances and starting and stopping of wars, that happened frequently.

The Dutch had always been close to water, of course. It’s hard not to be when much of your nation is below sea level anyway. There’s an old saying that “God made the world, but the Dutch made the Netherlands,” and that’s certainly true when you consider that through the use of polders, dykes and sheer willpower, the Dutch pulled much of their land out of the sea. But even then, many Dutch turned their aspirations to sea, heading out to be fishermen, or taking part in the Hanseatic League, a trading confederation, starting in the 1300s.

With the rise of Amsterdam and the Dutch nation as a trading empire in its own right, however, those aspirations grew exponentially. Already, demand had been growing for luxury goods from the Far East, such as spices, silk and lacquerware. The Portuguese had been especially active in finding shipping routes from Europe to China via Africa’s Cape of Good Hope (the tip of South Africa), a voyage that took a full year

The Netherlands wanted to challenge Portugal for dominance of those routes, as well as find new ways to China via the Arctic. It also set its sights across the Atlantic to where Spain and  England had set up colonies in the New World, and where the sugar, chocolate, tobacco and fur trades were getting started.

All of this opened opportunities for men who were willing to leave home for lengthy amounts of time and take risky voyages that stood to pay out handsomely. IF — and it was very much an if — they came home at all.

The VOC Site lists 676 ships from the Dutch East India Company that went missing or were shipwrecked during the company’s 197-year history. I couldn’t easily find a figure for the number of men who sailed with the VOC and never came back, but it must have been considerable. Den Waag, the location in Amsterdam where VOC sailors gathered before shipping out, became known as a tower of tears because of all the women who cried as they said goodbye to their men — perhaps forever — and watched their ships sail away from the highest floor of the tower.

The need for sailors was so great that the VOC even turned to the Amsterdam’s orphans as a steady supply. The city’s orphanages sent them to the shipping company for a profit, even though most of the children died on the job. Genealogy researcher Yvette Hoitink has found documentation showing that 33%-50% of all orphans sent to the VOC died before returning home. And when that happened, the wages due to these boys was returned to the orphanage, setting up a tidy revenue stream at the expense of these boy’s lives.

How did these sailors die? Any manner of ways. Some died during storms on the sea. Others were killed during acts of war or invasion by pirates. Some succumbed to malnutrition while being overworked. Disease was omnipresent — not to mention the plethora of exotic diseases that awaited their overworked, malnourished bodies on distant shores. And then there was the chance that those shores were home to people who were not glad to see them and, perhaps, willing to let them know that with the business end of a weapon.

Even polar bears claimed some lives. One particularly infamous voyage led by explorer Willem Barentsz in 1595 to find a passage to China via the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia failed after two men who had gone ashore to forage were killed by the bears. Surprisingly, Barentsz didn’t give up and tried to repeat the voyage two years later. That one was even more disastrous. The expedition was forced to overwinter on the island of Nova Zemlya when their ship was iced in. Of the sixteen men who endured that icy hell, only twelve lived returned to Amsterdam, and Barentsz wasn’t among them.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that disaster fiction became one of the first best-selling genres of all time. Among the first novels that grabbed the Dutch market were accounts of shipwrecks and survival in the Spice Islands and the Arctic written to varying degrees of authenticity (see: Schama, S. (2014). The embarrassment of riches: An interpretation of Dutch culture in the Golden Age. New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House. – pp 29-30).

But back to Rembrandt, who perhaps was reading those books and knew some of those people sailing on those ships. While I’ve never heard that he so much as set foot on deck himself, he doubtlessly knew the anxiety that visited any family who had a loved one sailing on the sea. While Amsterdam owed its riches to the waves, the sea broke its heart as well.

This was a time when you couldn’t pick up a phone or check your email to keep in touch with someone overseas. When someone was gone, they were really and truly gone. if you were lucky, they might be able to send a letter home on a ship going the right direction. Otherwise, you would be waiting months, years even, to see your husband or son again. So when that hoped for letter didn’t arrive, or that ship didn’t come back when you thought it should, anxieties started to mount.

Now, I’m not a New Testament sort of person, but it’s easy to see why this story would appeal to the Amsterdammer of the day. From Matthew 8:

23 And when he was entered into a ship, his disciples followed him.
24 And, behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves: but he was asleep.
25 And his disciples came to him, and awoke him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish.
26 And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. 

The Dutch were already a people obsessed with religion. They fought a whole war with Spain largely so that they could worship the way they wanted. So when anxiety ran high, it only makes sense that they drew from a well of faith to calm themselves. I mean, what else did they have? Psychotherapy wouldn’t be around for a couple hundred years yet, much less any anti-anxiety medications. 

Rembrandt understood, whether he was very religious himself or not. (He painted many religious themes, but he was not a member of the church himself.) Look Rembrandt The Storm on the Sea of Galilee detailhow he pictures Jesus as a stronghold of calm amongst a maelstrom of chaos. This is the sure, peaceful center that everyone wants when it feels like the world is is falling apart around them. 

Rembrandt The Storm on the Sea of Galilee selfieBut that’s not the only thing Rembrandt does here. Rembrandt being Rembrandt, he puts Rembrandt in a Rembrandt. Because Rembrandt. And as usual, he’s mugging for the camera, slapping his head like he just realized he couldda had a V8. I mean, really! Just look at this guy. Who paints himself making faces while hanging out on nearly capsizing boats with Jesus? This guy. That’s who.

My gosh, I love this artist. He really is the most human of them all.

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