A dramatic landscape unfolds in this small picture. Although the painting has a biblical subject, it is the mountains and sky that demand our attention. Towering clouds open up to reveal a radiant sun, and pine trees grow on the steep cliffs, framing an expanse of water and sky. The people depicted are dwarfed by nature.
Herman Saftleven specialised in landscape paintings, some of which had a mythological or religious subject; this one shows an important episode from the Gospel of Luke. Christ, dressed in blue, is sitting on the larger of the boats moored by the water’s edge. He preaches to the crowds that have gathered, raising his right arm upwards. After his address, Christ instructed the fisherman Simon (afterwards known as Peter) to lower his nets, even though they had caught nothing for hours. The nets came up full of fish. Simon Peter, together with his fellow fishermen James and John and his brother Andrew, decided to follow Christ, becoming his apostles.
A dramatic landscape unfolds in this small picture. Although the painting has a biblical subject, it is the mountains and sky that demand our attention. Towering clouds open up to reveal a radiant sun, and pine trees grow on the steep cliffs, framing an expanse of water and sky. It takes a moment to notice that people are scattered throughout the landscape, dwarfed as they are by nature, and even then, the painting’s subject is not immediately clear.
The action seems to take place by the two boats moored on the water’s edge. The story can be found in the Gospel of Luke, which recounts how Christ was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, better known as the Sea of Galilee, as a crowd gathered to hear the word of God. He saw that two boats were empty, the fishermen drying their nets, and decided to board the one belonging to a man named Simon. He addressed the crowds from there. A small figure dressed in blue is visible on the larger boat, his right arm pointing upwards to God. A very faint halo further identifies him as Christ.
After his address, Christ instructed Simon to lower his nets into the water, even though the fishermen had caught nothing so far. Miraculously, when the nets were raised they held a huge haul of fish. Somewhat cryptically, Christ said to Simon that from now on he would be catching people instead of fish. The fishermen who witnessed this miracle – Simon, James, John, and Simon’s brother Andrew (not mentioned by Luke) – decided to abandon their livelihoods then and there, and to follow Christ instead. These men would become Christ’s apostles, and the story’s protagonist Simon is better known as Saint Peter.
Herman Saftleven signed the bottom left of his picture on a rock above and to the left of a child’s head. Bought by Sir Charles Eastlake, first Director of the National Gallery, it remains the artist’s only picture in the Gallery’s collection. Saftleven, who was born in Rotterdam, started specialising in landscape painting at about the same time that he settled in Utrecht in 1633. From the 1650s onwards, he started painting landscapes like this one, with scenery inspired by his travels through the Rhineland, sometimes with a mythological or religious subject.
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