Bruegel the Elder, Jan - VM - Otto Bam
Jan Brueghel the Elder: Harbour Scene with St. Paul’s Departure from Caesarea
Seeing the Unnoticed Extraordinary
by Otto Bam
This wonderful painting, dated 1596, is by the Flemish painter Jan Brueghel. The artwork depicts a biblical scene that has rarely found its way onto a canvas: the Apostle Paul’s departure from Caesarea. Although this seems an obscure choice of subject, depicted as an event hidden away amidst the busyness of a bustling harbour, the painting illustrates the way the extraordinary can unfold unnoticed, in the background of the everyday.
I came across the painting recently at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, USA. It hangs at the entrance of a room, a few paces beyond an open doorway, rendering it visible a fair way off before you enter the room. How well the curators understood the way this work is most naturally apprehended. Indeed, you come to it like a traveller who, approaching the brow of a hill, glimpses first the sea that reaches into a picturesque horizon in the distance – that is, the upper half of the painting. Majestic ships lie under the romantic sky, obscured by a pleasant, ethereal mist. This is a heavenly view, and the eye moves across the horizon with delighted ease.
But as you summit the hill behind the bay your gaze moves downwards, from heaven to earth, where it is met with a much more earthly, human reality. The world of commerce and conversation, of conflict and laughter. Come closer, and you are drawn down and into the foreground, which is where you enter the scene, having reached the port. The smell of fish hangs in the air; the sound of passionate bartering and barking dogs. This is no longer merely a landscape, and neither is it merely a depiction of everyday life, for the painting is carefully structured to lead the attentive viewer into a reading of the scene. Notice one of the figures on the dock who is leaning on a walking stick with his back towards you, pointing to the right. Follow his direction and there you will find, so easy to miss, the haloed Apostle Paul surrounded by soldiers.
The book of Acts provides an account of Paul’s missionary journeys. Having completed three of these journeys, he is faced with a crisis. At Caesarea, on his way to Jerusalem, a prophet named Agabus predicts that Paul would be bound at Jerusalem and delivered to the Gentiles. Paul’s friends are alarmed and urge him not to depart for Jerusalem. But the Apostle responds: “I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). The prophecy of Agabus will soon prove true.
Once one has glimpsed the Apostle in the bottom-right corner of the painting, the whole canvas becomes charged with symbolism. Look again at the dock where we first entered the scene. The fishermen’s baskets are overflowing with a great harvest, and more is being loaded onto the dock. And what a variety! Eel and manta ray and sole – too many to mention. This brings to mind how Jesus had told his disciples, the fishermen Simon and Andrew, that they would become “fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19). The great variety of fish stands for the many nations that would come to believe through Paul’s witness to the Gentiles.
The Apostle is on the move, and the whole landscape takes on an irresistible momentum. The bow of every ship points in the direction that Paul’s journey will take him. Sails are filled with a strong easterly wind, and overhead the birds are almost all flying in the same direction. Amidst the rays of the sun there is a bird in crucifix shape. This recalls many depictions of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan (See “The Baptism of Christ” for example), with the dove descending from the sun symbolising the Holy Spirit. Paul’s journey across the sea now takes on a new significance. It symbolises the path of obedience which, though it leads through death, ends on the shores of eternal life.
But why is the main subject of the painting so hidden away? One answer would be that it has a demystifying effect. That what we think of as a significant historical moment is really just another occurrence, as insignificant as buying and selling fish. But another way to look at it is to realise that the most extraordinary things can easily escape our notice. We need to train our eyes to discern the miraculous in the everyday. The artist becomes a tutor for spiritual eyes and Brueghel’s painting can be thought of as a poetic of concealment and disclosure. He hides things so that we might enquire more carefully and truly see. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” Jesus said, “which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree.” So it was with the Apostle’s message to the Gentiles. And so it is with the Gospel today. May we have eyes to see the unnoticed extraordinary in our everyday.
Jan Brueghel the Elder, Harbour Scene with St. Paul’s Departure from Caesarea, 1596; oil on copper; 35.9 x 54.6 cm; North Carolina Museum of Art.
Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), also known as "Velvet" Brueghel because of the delicacy of his brushwork, was an artist of remarkable versatility. He is justly renowned for his atmospheric landscapes and riverscapes, which come alive through the careful yet fluid strokes of his brush and the activities of the figures who populate his scenes. However, he also painted flower bouquets, many of which include depictions of precious objects, as well as mythological, allegorical, and historical subjects and evocative scenes of hell. His refined and delicate images, often painted on copper, were highly valued by kings and princes throughout Europe. Early in his career Jan worked mostly at a small scale and on a copper support; gradually the size of his pictures increased and he worked more often on panel or even on canvas. Brueghel often collaborated with other master painters, including Peter Paul Rubens, Hans Rottenhammer, Hendrick van Balen, Sebastiaen Vrancx, and Joos de Momper. He only had two known pupils, Daniel Seghers and his own son Jan the Younger, but an efficient studio staffed by paid professionals permitted copious production. Taken from https://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.3626.html and http://janbrueghel.net/
Otto Bam is a South African writer and musician. He is the co-editor of ArtWay and the arts manager for the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology, where he also holds a fellowship. Otto has a master’s degree in English Studies from Stellenbosch University, South Africa, as well as master’s degree in religion and literature from the University of Edinburgh.
ArtWay Visual Meditation 21 January 2024