Sunday, February 07, 2016

MORE ON TINTORETTO’S PAINTING, Christ at the Sea of Galilee

The painting is sometimes captioned to suggest that it is about Jesus calming the storm and/or Jesus walking on the waters of the Sea of Gennesaret. But it cannot be only one of these, nor both at once, because they were separate events, and in both all the disciples were in the boat. Only with John’s gospel account as starting point, and allusions to the other two events incorporated by Tintoretto, can the painting make sense.

In John 21:1-8, we read that there were seven in the boat: Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, “the sons of Zebedee and two more of his disciples”. Peter climbed out of the boat, half-clad, as soon as he realised that the man on the shore was Jesus. “The other disciples came on in the boat, towing the net and the fish; they were only about a hundred yards from land.” In the painting, there are only seven men in the boat, and one is leaning over, appearing to grasp a barely visible net with sketchy fishes.

A number of thoughts arise. In the events that occurred before the Resurrection, Jesus acted as the master of Nature, which, of course, He is: He stilled the tempest with a word, and He walked over quite half the Sea of Gennesaret. On both occasions He admonished the disciples for their want of faith in Him. In the course of His Ministry, Jesus fed the multitude with bread and with fish proffered by the disciples.

In the event narrated by John, Jesus says nothing about having faith. He first suggests that the men cast their empty net to starboard, which they do without questioning, although very near the shore, and find they have netted a hundred and fifty-three large fish. Later He draws from Peter three declarations of love which wipe out the three denials (in Peter’s mind, not in the mind of Jesus, who doesn’t carry such memories in the way that humans do). In between, Jesus says to the disciples, “Come and have breakfast”, as if it were quite natural for Him, the Risen Lord, to procure the charcoal, the bread and the fish that they then see on the shore – the fish grilling on the fire, and the bread by the side. Two supernatural miracles from Jesus when He was in the flesh, and a homely miracle when He is in the mystery of His risen body! Now it is He who produces bread and fish, and He feeds the disciples.

What did Tintoretto have in mind when he painted this canvas? Was it purely Divine inspiration, the ideas channelled through his hand? We shall never know for certain. Artists in any medium are frequently prophets, even if they are not aware of a prophetic mission. It is enough for us to reflect on the three events that Tintoretto combined in a painting, which even merely as a painting is striking and memorable for its painterly qualities.

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