[Today, March 18, marks the 25th anniversary of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist of 1990, during which two thieves made off with thirteen irreplaceable works of art from Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, Manet, and others. It was the largest single property theft in American history, worth an estimated $500,000,000. The stolen art has not been seen since. I spent the better part of last year digging into the story, and wrote this essay about the art, the museum’s builder, the heist, and the Gospel. Maybe the visibility this anniversary sheds on the missing pieces of art will lead to their return. This essay was published in The MoleHill, Vol 3. The Molehill is a wonderful collection of essays, fiction, poetry, and art from some really amazing writers and thinkers. It’s an honor to contribute each year.]
Think of how bored they get, stacked
in the warehouse somewhere, say in Mattapan,
gazing at the back of the butcher paper
they are wrapped in, instead of at
the rapt glad faces of those who love art.
Only criminals know where they are.
The gloom of criminality enshrouds them.
The security guard sitting behind the main desk of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum looked up from his homework when he heard the buzzer for the Palace Road entrance. On the monitor he saw two uniformed police officers standing outside. Through the intercom, the officers told him they had received a report of a disturbance in the museum’s courtyard and needed to check it out.
It was 1:24am on March 19, 1990. Though midnight officially marked the end of St. Patrick’s Day, the pubs in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood were still pouring pints and spilling their staggering celebrants into the streets when, against protocol, the guard buzzed the officers in.
Once inside, the officer in charge asked the guard if he had noticed anything unusual and if there was anyone else on duty that night.
The guard told them yes, he had a partner upstairs and no, they had not seen anything out of the ordinary.
The lead officer said, “Go ahead and call your partner down here.”
The second officer studied the guard’s face as he made the call.
“You look familiar,” the second officer said to the guard. “Is there a warrant out for your arrest?”
The security guard looked surprised and insisted there wasn’t, but the question itself set him on edge and his denial seemed only to deepen the officer’s suspicion.
“Please come over here and show me your ID,” the lead officer ordered.
The security guard stepped out from behind the desk and away from the only silent alarm button in the museum. He handed his driver’s license and Berklee College of Music ID to the officer. After studying the license for a second the officer cuffed the guard and said, “You are under arrest. We need to take you in.”
Just then the second watchman on duty that night, an aspiring musician, came around the corner and the officers immediately put him in handcuffs too.
Surprised, the second guard asked, “Why are you arresting me?”
The officers said, “You are not being arrested. You are being robbed. Don’t give us any problems and you won’t get hurt.”
The thieves then bound the guards, covered their eyes and mouths with tape, and chained them to pipes on opposite ends of the basement. After this, the thieves spent the next eighty-one minutes selecting and loading thirteen irreplaceable pieces of art into a vehicle waiting outside.
Then they drove off quietly past the homes and businesses of Fenway, never to be heard from again.
The sea surges and swells. The little fishing boat has no hope of holding on to the churning foam below. The bow rides up the back of one white breaker while the stern dips into the valley beneath it. Waves break over the sides. The half dozen men to Rembrandt’s right shout and strain at the sails, struggling to keep the ship from capsizing. The five men to his left plead with Jesus of Nazareth to save them. Rembrandt stands in the middle of the boat, his right hand tightly clutching a rope and his left pinning his hat to his head. His name is scrawled across the useless rudder, as though this is his boat on his sea and they are all caught in his storm. He and everyone else in the ship are soon to be lost unless their leader intervenes.
We don’t think much about our mortality, but the question is never far away. It comes in an instant and often brings with it an inherent sense of reverence. Life is a fragile, sacred thing. This sacred fragility has played a central role the creation of much of the world’s great art. We marvel at the lithe physical perfection of youth in Michelangelo’s David. We wonder what sort of burden has Rodin’s Thinker so bent over. We avert our eyes from death in Reuben’s The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus lay Jesus’s lifeless body on a stone slab.
When our seas are calm, we regard them as safe. We say, “I know these waters like the back of my hand.” But what we mean is, we know these waters when they are still and when our boats are sound and when the sun is out and when our supplies are in order. And that, as it turns out, has nothing to do with actually knowing what churns in the depths or what gathers in the heavens. When the storm breaks out, we have much to learn.
For the men in the boat with Rembrandt, this storm was not their first encounter with their mortality. Early in Jesus’s ministry, he and his disciples came to a town called Nain in the foothills of Mt. Tabor southeast of Nazareth. As they drew near to the village, they heard the unmistakable cries of mourning coming from just inside the gate. This community’s tragedy, whatever it was, was recent and the wounds were fresh.
The disciples watched as mourners trickled out like tears from the town’s gate. Behind the mourners came four men carrying a dead man on a stretcher. The dead man’s mother followed behind, weeping.
The disciples looked for the dead man’s father or brothers. There were none. People from the procession said his mother was a widow and this was her only son. A loss like this meant the widow would have no one to care for her in her old age. Those who knew her situation all felt the same sting. No mother should have to bury her own child.
In those days people looked to their religious leaders to make sense of death and the grief it caused. But when Jesus’s disciples looked at their teacher, they didn’t see a man composing a speech. Instead, they saw a man dealing with his own grief. Jesus watched the dead son’s mother weeping into her hands. He walked over and stood in front of her until she regarded him.
“Do not weep,” he said.
His words were tender, but words alone would not stop these tears. They both knew this. Still, Jesus interrupted her mourning long enough for her to look up and see his compassion for her.
Jesus went over to the funeral bier and touched the pall.
The bearers stopped. In fact, in that moment, everything seemed to stop. When Jesus touched the board bearing the dead man, several people gasped because touching the dead defiled a rabbi’s ceremonial purity. What was he thinking? Had he sunk so deep into his own empathy that he had forgotten himself?
Jesus whispered, “Young man.”
The dead man’s mother’s sorrow changed to confusion. Did the rabbi just whisper something to her son?
Jesus said, “Young man, listen to my voice. Get up.”
A huge gasp came from the stretcher as the body jerked like someone startled awake by a clap of thunder. The young man sat up and asked why he was on that board and why everyone looked so terrified.
Jesus helped him down and returned him to his mother. Fear seized the crowd of mourners. They weren’t sure how to feel. Some wept even more. Others laughed in disbelief. One said what they were all feeling: “God has visited his people and he has given us a great prophet. Jesus of Nazareth speaks and the dead live again.”
The disciples were no strangers to matters of mortality, but the ways Jesus responded to it were unlike anything they, or the rest of the world had ever seen. Reports of that miracle spread all around Judea and the surrounding countryside. Great crowds flocked to Jesus. As those crowds continued to grow, Jesus stayed on the move to manage them the best he could.
It was a world with no shortage of need, and people continued to brings theirs to him in droves. After one particularly intense day of ministry by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus asked his disciples to set off in a boat to get some peace and quiet. Weary, Jesus went to the bow of the boat and lay down. Rocking in the gentle swells of the sea, he fell asleep.
He awoke to a dripping, desperate face inches from his own shouting over the noise of a sudden storm, “Wake up! Don’t you care that we are perishing?”
A canyon wind had whipped the lake into such a torrent that the waves were beginning to break over the sides of the boat. She was sinking. Most of the souls on board were experienced seafarers, and all of them, in fact, except Jesus were working furiously to keep their boat adrift and so also their lives.
“Jesus, we’re dying! Don’t you care?” screamed Peter.
It was such an ironic question. The reason Jesus and his disciples were in the boat in the first place was to escape the crowds who continually pressed in around Jesus because he had come to be known as a healer who could raise the dead. The masses sought him because he not only cared about their perishing, he stopped it. He even reversed it.
But there in the boat, paralyzed on a leprous-white sea, they knew this could only end in one of two ways: in death or in a miracle. In spite of their best efforts, they were headed for death and they were desperate. Did Jesus have anything for them like he had for the widow from Nain’s son? Even if it was only words, they needed something.
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s (1606-1669) only known seascape, is one of his most dramatic paintings, capturing that moment just after the disciples knew they would die if Jesus didn’t save them and just before he did.
The five foot by four foot canvas hung in the Dutch Room on the second floor of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for close to one hundred years. Everyone who looked at it saw the same thing; Rembrandt looking out through the frame to us—looking us dead in the eye. The terror on his face asked us what the disciples were asking Jesus: “Don’t you care that we’re perishing here?”
Rembrandt, who was known even to his own contemporaries as “The Master,” was as much a storyteller as he was a painter. He cared about the narratives behind his paintings, and painted them to tell as much of the story as he could in a single frame. One way he did this was by painting himself into several ubiquitous Biblical scenes. He did this not for vanity but for the sake of the story. He wanted to draw us in, capture our imaginations, instruct us on how we should relate to what was happening on the canvas, and bear witness to what he believed to be true about the world he painted and his place in it.
For example, in The Raising of the Cross, Rembrandt strains with three other men to lift the cross of Jesus into its base on Golgotha. He and Jesus are the only two men not draped in shadow. The contrast between them is stark. Jesus is naked, pale, and bloody; Rembrandt is wearing a rich man’s clean, blue robe and matching beret. Rembrandt wants us to know that while he believed all people had a hand in Jesus’ crucifixion (as seen in the array of soldiers, peasants, politicians, and faceless figures hidden in the background), as far as he is concerned, the one whose guilt shines brightest in that affair is his own.
In his painting, The Prodigal Son in the Tavern, Rembrandt is the glassy-eyed, drunk younger brother looking at us over his left shoulder as he holds a pint in one hand and a woman in the other. The woman in the painting is his wife, Saskia. By painting himself into this scene, Rembrandt confesses his great capacity for folly as well as his imminent need for mercy. We look on with a mix of pity and compassion. We know what the man in the story has squandered and what he has left behind. We know how his world is about to crumble. But we also know that his father loves him and is probably scanning the horizon for the young man’s return even at that very moment. And we know the prodigal will return to his father’s love, but not before he breaks.
By painting himself into the boat in The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt wants us to know that he believes his life will either be lost in a sea of chaos or preserved by the Son of God. Those are his only two options. And by peering through the storm and out of the frame to us, he asks if we are not in the same boat.
America’s first great art collector, Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924), came to know this perishing all too well when her two-year-old son died in 1865. Heartbroken, she and her husband Jack began traveling the world in an effort to assuage their grief. Both Jack and Isabella came from wealthy families, so they were never wanting financially. This freed them to venture as far and wide as they pleased. And that they did. In their travels they began to collect art, both folk and fine, from around the globe.
Though their grief over the loss of their son eventually subsided, their appetite for art did not. In 1890, after twenty-five years of gathering, they realized they had assembled the makings of a world-class permanent collection of fine art that any museum would have been eager to call their own. So they set the folk art aside and focused on obtaining works from many of the world’s greatest artists—Botticelli, Titian, Raphael, Manet, Degas, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. Their collection, Isabella said, “ought to have only a few, and all of them A number-ones.”
Before long, Isabella and Jack’s collection grew so large that she felt it would be improper to keep it to themselves. She wanted to create a permanent home for their art—“a museum for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.” She and Jack purchased a plot of land in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood and began to dream.
Then in 1898 tragedy struck again. Jack died. Once again Isabella was thrown into grief, and as she had done when she lost her son, she turned to art to lead her through. Only this time instead of gathering more art others had created, she wanted to make something of her own—her own masterpiece, her museum: Fenway Court.
Isabella poured herself into the project. She was not content to simply meet with her builders and pay her contractors. She designed every aspect of the museum herself. Her architect, William Sears, joked that on this particular job he was little more than a carpenter and mechanical engineer carrying out the true architect’s vision. Isabella designed an Italian renaissance Palazzo with great halls framing a grand courtyard in the center, just like the ones in Venice she and Jack used to stay in when they were younger and had the world by the tail.
Over the next few years, the four-story Fenway Court rose from the marshlands as one of the finer things many of its neighbors had ever seen. Once the structure was completed in 1902, Isabella then spent an entire year working on the interior design. Unimpressed with traditional gallery style museums, which, to her, were boring, bare rooms with pictures hanging on the walls, she arranged her collection to overwhelm her guests with the sense that they were getting a truly intimate experience with some of the world’s most magnificent creations.
Each room would be its own living diorama featuring paintings, tapestries, furniture, and sculptures all arranged to immerse the patron in the experience of a culture and era they would never be able find anywhere other than her museum. “Love of art, not knowledge about the history of art, was her aim,” the museum’s brochure explained.
From the pieces in her collection to where she placed them in the palazzo to the architecture to the furniture to the floor plan, Fenway Court was just as Isabella wanted it. She was adamant that it remain that way, so much so that in her last will and testament she stipulated that if any changes were made to her collection after her death—if future trustees allowed anything to either be brought in or taken out—the entire collection would have to be turned over to Harvard for liquidation. Adding anything her collection would be like adding length to the Mona Lisa’s hair, just as removing anything would be tantamount to cutting it.
Isabella Stewart Gardner, a woman of sorrows and acquainted with grief, wanted to bring something into this world that would not perish. She chose art. At the time of her death in 1924, Isabella had accumulated more than 2,500 tapestries, manuscripts, rare books, sculptures, pieces of furniture, and masterworks from Titian, Vermeer, Flinck, Michelangelo, Raphael, Whistler, Degas, Manet, Sargent, Botticelli, and the Dutch master himself, Rembrandt. She had given them a home. More than that, she had given them places of honor to be savored by the “rapt glad faces of those who love art.”
When asked why she was so protective of keeping Fenway Court just as she had made it, the widow who buried her son all those years earlier said, “My museum will live.”
The sensors on the security door revealed that the thieves had to make two trips.
The thirteen stolen works included Johannes Vermeer’s The Concert (one of only 35 confirmed Vermeers in existence), a Flinck landscape, a three thousand year old Chinese vase from the Shang Dynasty, one Manet, five Degas, and three Rembrandts—one, a postage stamp sized self-portrait etching; one, his formal Lady and Gentleman in Black; and last, one of the Museum’s most prominently displayed works, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.
Together, the thirteen stolen pieces of art amounted to the largest property theft in America’s history with an estimated value of more than $500 million.
The most valuable works were taken from the museum’s Dutch Room on the second floor. “Strong personalities dominate this room,” the museum guide says. “Looking down from the walls are a queen, a doctor, an archduchess, a lawyer, an artist, and an art collector.” Even in the elite company of Isabella’s other Dutch and Flemish masterpieces, there was no disputing that Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee ruled the room.
Rembrandt painted The Storm on the Sea of Galilee in 1633, shortly after moving from his home in Leiden to Amsterdam. He wanted to establish himself as one of the city’s masters of Biblical and geo-political portraiture and historical scenes. Rembrandt’s fine brushwork and bright palette were characteristic of his early style, which featured detail as intricate as the braid of a rope or the crow’s feet around a man’s eyes.
Rembrandt’s “ability not only to represent a sacred history, but also to seize our attention and immerse us in an unfolding pictorial drama” makes the The Storm on the Sea of Galilee transcend the scene itself. The story here is about so much more than one group of men getting caught up in that one storm on that one afternoon. This painting is about all of us. Rembrandt retraces the old story that pits man against nature as the angry sea tosses that fully rigged boat with her terrified passengers around like a toy. And he pits the vulgar against the divine as one disciple vomits over the leeward rail while another, only two feet away, holds on to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, pleading for him to save them.
The crime scene revealed that while the thieves had plenty of time to handle the art with care, they chose not to. One Rembrandt was left behind, bent and scuffed on the floor. Vermeer’s The Concert had been knocked out of its frame, as had Manet’s Chez Tortoni. (In what could only be seen as an act of mockery, the thieves left Manet’s empty frame in a chair in the security supervisor’s office.)
Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee fared even worse. Rather than risk getting caught with the five-foot canvas, the thieves took a knife and cut the painting out of its stretcher boards. The frame, complete with its tiny brass plaque at the bottom, which read, simply, “Rembrandt,” was left hanging empty on the wall.
Anthony Amore, the Gardner Museum’s security director said, “Art is not stolen by master criminals, but by common criminals […] It is less like The Thomas Crown Affair and more like a Cohen Brothers movie.”
Art thieves are rarely art collectors. Collectors want to show others what they have. Criminals want to keep their cache hidden and turn it into money as soon as possible. Because art thieves are not often collectors, they don’t always know what they are taking. In 2003, one thief made off with DaVinci’s Madonna with the Yarn Winder, not realizing he had stolen one of the most famous and valuable paintings in the world. When he tried to sell it no one would touch it because it was too famous.
Stolen art is a burden few can manage. What can a thief do with half a billion in stolen art when the paintings taken in the heist are featured in every newspaper, magazine, and news show around the world? The average law-abiding citizen gets stuck on this question because they assume the point is for the thief to try to get something close to what the art is worth. A one hundred million dollar stolen Vermeer, even at a discount, should fetch the thief fifty million dollars, right?
Wrong. Thieves in possession of well known works of art—Vermeer’s, Rembrandt’s, Monet’s, DaVinci’s—know that attempting to sell the art outright almost guarantees their arrest.
So what happens to art once it is taken? Typically, a stolen piece of art meets one of four fates: it is either destroyed, held for ransom, used as a black market currency, or sold as a high quality replica of itself.
Of course, there are instances where thieves steal art because they want to keep it for themselves, but that seldom turns out well. Stephane Breitwieser, a 32-year-old waiter who lived with his mother in eastern France, stole hundreds of pieces of art from museums in Germany, Switzerland, and France. He stole them because he liked them; he displayed them in his mother’s home. When he was arrested for stealing a bugle, of all things, his mother, in an effort to hide his crimes, burned many of the pieces in his collection. At the time of Breitwieser’s arrest, he had gathered close to two billion dollars in stolen art.
Investigators estimate that 20% of all stolen art meets a similar fate. The stress and inconvenience of holding such precious public treasures ends up being more than the thieves bargained for. With nowhere to turn and no way to give it back, they destroy their prize.
The FBI says only 5% of the world’s stolen art is ever recovered. Often, these pieces were stolen for the purpose of returning them for a ransom. This art tends to end up back on the museum wall. For some thieves, this is the plan all along—steal a painting, cut out letters from a newspaper and glue them together into a ransom note, and hope for the best.
For others, they’re after a ransom of a different kind. Some criminals have the foresight to know that due to their unlawful lifestyle, they will likely one day be arrested for something. This is a question of when, not if. Facilitating the return of a stolen treasure becomes a strategic bargaining chip when they go to plead down their charges. Criminals know that law enforcement agencies look great in the public eye when they recover stolen art, and there is no such thing as too much goodwill between these agencies and the communities they serve.
This leaves approximately 75% of the world’s stolen art simply unaccounted for—in the wind. Once the Gardner art trundled away from the museum in the back of a panel van, it took on a completely new purpose. It ceased to exist “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever” and most likely became a form of currency. Black market paintings and sculptures end up traveling the world like a twenty-dollar bill or a pawned watch.
How does this work? Suppose someone drives off with a Monet worth $10,000,000. That painting might be traded right away for $1,000,000 worth of high quality cocaine. The cocaine dealer then sits on the painting for a year while the buzz around it dies down. Then he trades it to an arms dealer for a cache of weapons for his cartel. Another year passes and the arms dealer trades the Monet to a weapons supplier who knows a black market art dealer. Now the painting has been off the grid for a few years and is five people removed from the thief and his crime without one dollar actually exchanging hands. The black market has laundered the painting and the memory of its theft to a point where it can begin to appear in unscrupulous deals and move from private sale to private sale for years, even decades, before ever emerging on the open market or being discovered an attic at some estate sale.
Stolen art fetches roughly 10% of its actual value in that first sale. But the further it travels from the crime, the greater the buyer’s plausible deniability and thus the safer the purchase and the higher the price tag. The laws surrounding art theft don’t exactly deter thieves. They know how the system works.
In the US, the National Stolen Property Act protects collectors from going jail for owning stolen art unless it can be proven that they knew they were buying stolen merchandise, which is almost impossible to demonstrate with laundered art since one of the hallmarks of the black market is secrecy. In the Netherlands, the law says that after 20 years, a piece of stolen art becomes the legal property of whoever possesses it.
In 2004 six men stole Edvard Munch’s The Scream (worth more than $100,000,000) from a museum wall in Oslo. They were arrested, but only three were convicted, and only two served any jail time; one man got six years and the other got four. Stephane Breitwieser, the French waiter, spent just four years in jail for stealing close to two billion dollars worth of art.
One former art thief said in an interview that criminals know if they steal a Rembrandt they might get three to five years, but if they steal the equivalent of what that Rembrandt is worth in cash or commodities, they might face 25 years to life. Stolen art has long been prized as a low-risk, high reward currency for funding criminal activity.
If those pieces of the Gardner art haven’t been destroyed, or held for ransom, or passed around like a briefcase full of cash, they likely fall into one other grim scenario. They have been sold as high quality replicas of themselves.
How does this work? Say, for example, a thief steals a lesser-known Rembrandt. Rembrandt had many pupils over the years—young painters who studied in his studio alongside the Master himself. These students learned to mimic Rembrandt’s technique and style. Many of his protégés became so skilled in the art of imitation that historians have been debating the authenticity of hundreds of canvases and etchings attributed to him. German art historian Wilhelm von Bode quipped, “Rembrandt painted 700 pictures. Of these, 3,000 are still in existence.”
A savvy con man with a gullible target could convince his potential buyer that the painting he has to sell came from one of Rembrandt’s own students. All he needs to do to make his case is turn to the painting itself. The detail in this unknown artist’s copy would have required unobstructed access to the original. See how the light hits the woman’s nose in the exact way Rembrandt painted it. Look at the tassels on the man’s coat. Take a sample of the paint to a lab if you like. You will discover it is, in fact, paint from the 17th century—Dutch in origin. It may not be a true Rembrandt, the con explains, but it comes from the brush of the Master’s protégé. The palette, the scale, the detail, and even the signature all say that this is a rare work in its own right—easily worth a percentage of the masterwork it apes. For a mere $100,000, you could own an actual 17th century painting from Rembrandt’s studio. Perhaps it was even painted on the same easel that held the original. Chances are it was.
This has to be the most insidious option of the four. Rather than reduce a work of art to ash, the thief burns it from our memory. Rather than holding it for a ransom worthy of its pedigree, it endures the indignity of being sold for a pittance. Rather than circulate the painting among art lovers, corrupt though they may be, the thief removes the painting from circulation and banishes it to a fate worse than fire—a life of obscurity where it continues to exist in a world that will never find it. Its new owner doesn’t know it is real and the seller is praying he never finds out.
Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee has been in the wind for close to twenty-five years now. There is a $5,000,000 reward for the recovery of the Gardner art. So far no one has stepped forward to claim that reward. There have been no arrests. No demands for ransom. No legitimate sightings. Despite thousands of tips, leads, and suspects shared between the FBI, the US Attorney’s office in Massachusetts, local, federal, and international law enforcement, no one knows who stole the art or where it is.
Ron Gollobin, a Boston crime beat reporter, said, “There’s a five million dollar reward. That’s a pretty powerful statement. Absolute silence. Not one peep as to who might have done this.” While it may be in the possession of someone who is simply biding their time, the silence suggests the sober probability that we have seen the last of The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.
Still, every year on the anniversary of the theft, the Gardner Museum issues a press release asking for its return. In the release, like the parent of a kidnapped child going on television to describe how to properly use an EpiPen, the museum explains that the missing art should be kept at 68 degrees Fahrenheit with 50 percent humidity.
The Dutch Room’s brownish gray fleur-de-lis wall covering now fills Rembrandt’s frame like an eerie calm after a violent storm. Aside from perhaps a few canvas fibers and paint chips from the 17th century embedded the cracks of the museum floor, there remains no sign of Rembrandt’s boat or any of the souls on board. All are lost.
Museum-goers visit the Dutch Room like mourners passing the grave of a loved one. They describe Rembrandt’s empty frame as “an unholy tragedy, a monstrous corruption of beauty.” Some refuse to even set foot in the room. Those who know how that museum came to be are offended by the theft—not because of how much the stolen art was worth, but because what the thieves did was rude. It was disrespectful of Isabella’s gift and inconsiderate of her grief.
Isabella Stewart Gardner walked in the way of the widow from Nain and had carried her sorrows to this place in the hope of finding some rest. When she lost her baby in a sea of grief, she turned to beauty for healing. When she lost her husband, she determined to create something that would not die—a museum that would live forever. And she would give it to the world.
Isabella was one person in a long line of many who have, in their own way, tried to arrest the decay of a dying creation. She wanted to give us something beautiful, something lasting, something whole born out of a groaning too deep for words. It was a defiant act of war against death using beauty as her weapon.
Whoever cut The Storm on the Sea of Galilee from its frame did so with Rembrandt looking straight at him. Did the two men make eye contact? Did the man disguised as a Boston police officer understand what Rembrandt was trying say?
Listen. This is a hard world. It is a world where children die and where widows grieve. This is the nature of the storm we are all painted into. The same sea that lures us in with its beauty and bounty surges with a power that can destroy us without warning. And eventually there comes a reckoning. Rembrandt knew this well. So did Isabella Stewart Gardner. So did every man in the boat.
Has the thief learned this yet? Or is he still glassy-eyed at the tavern bar in a distant country, unaware that he has now painted himself into Isabella’s storm. His workmanship now hangs in Rembrandt’s place, leaving behind a frame that has become something like the location of a dead drop, a place where messages are exchanged between people who are not meant to see each other.
The empty frame is a note from the thief that tells Isabella that though she may want to create something beyond the reach of death, that is not something this world affords. She can dress up the pain all she likes, but nothing she has made will last forever. This is a world where thieves break in and steal. It is a place where beautiful things are destroyed, where precious treasures are sold for a pittance, where talents are buried in the ground never to be seen again. This is a world where we are constantly trying to tell each other that we are not what we truly are. The gloom of criminality enshrouds us. The thief knew this well. So did Rembrandt. So did every man in the boat.
Things will not always be this way. Sad things such as these will one day come untrue. The Apostle Paul said those who put their faith in Jesus are like earthen vessels with glory inside—frames that hold masterpieces. He said, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies… So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
The disciple’s question reverberates down through the ages—does God care about our perishing? Jesus came treading upon our roughest seas, speaking peace into the gale. And he will do it again. His triumph over the grave calls those who are perishing to be born again into a new and living hope. The peace he has brought by his resurrection is neither myth nor fantasy. It is an inheritance that will never perish, kept for those who believe, world without end.
His is a kingdom that will live. But it is the only one of its kind.
If The Storm on the Sea of Galilee still exists, Rembrandt, in all his glory, is tucked away in some closet, attic, or vault, hidden from the world. He is still clutching that rope; still trying to keep his hat from flying off his head. And he is looking out into our world for anyone who will make eye contact. If he still exists, it is quite a storm he is caught in.
Someday soon, if the Bible is true, Jesus will stand and say to widows and thieves alike, “Peace, be still.” His words will be followed by an unprecedented, eternal calm.
Knowing this helps us now. Whatever we suffer, we need not grieve as those who have no hope.
So we learn to hope in a coming kingdom. But we do so knowing that in this one, at least for now, Rembrandt is in the wind.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).
Having been to this museum and living less than an hour away from it, this really hit home. Well done.
Just listened to an episode of StoryCorps about this, from the guard’s perspective: http://www.npr.org/2015/03/13/392567024
Thanks for such a beautifully-written reflection, Russ.
I have recently been haunted by those words, spoken by the disciples in the throes of fear, to their sleeping Lord: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” I have asked that same question in one form or another over the years, as I look at the brokenness around and inside me. “Jesus, do you not care?”
“Someday soon, if the Bible is true, Jesus will stand and say to widows and thieves alike, “Peace, be still.” His words will be followed by an unprecedented, eternal calm.”
This writing was fascinating and profound. Thank you for this wonderful analogy.
Fascinating article. So well written! Thank you! I had no idea the story behind this art theft.
My husband has a copy of the “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” hanging in his office. It has always been one of our favorites. I’m so glad we have a copy of it.
That was an excellent story Russ. Amen indeed!
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