This painting shows a Dutch three-master on a rough sea. The Dutch ship is shown, in the middle distance, heeling in the water. Churning waves, whipped up by a stiff offshore breeze from left to right, break against it. Two other ships can be seen on the left and right of the large vessel. Characteristically, the sea is brightly sunlit and painted with vivid white highlights. Sea and sky are rendered as bright, flat areas of colour on the right. The human element of this painting takes precedence here. A rocky outcrop peppered with scrubby vegetation and bare tree trunks emerges in the foreground on the left. Standing upon these bare rocks and facing the water are five modestly dressed men while a sixth man is just visible in a clearing to the left. The group huddles against the wind. Both the figures in the painting and the viewer are united in surveying the open sea. One figure holds a red flag and their presence on the rocks underlines the danger which threatens the ship. A wooden cross has been positioned on the outcrop above them, with a jagged tree above.
A commemorative wooden cross precariously erected on the cliffs is a motif which frequently recurs in the work of Mulier. The cross may, within a narrative frame of reference, allude to a sailor or an entire ship which may have perished – a symbol of the ultimate transience of human life. Equally it may refer to the rock in which it is embedded. The rock – which may symbolise the Church and Christian faith – remains strong and constant in the face of unpredictable, often violent storms. Also this resolution and steadfastness could apply to the individual. A contemporary audience would no doubt have been familiar with the concept of navigatio vitae to which the painting possibly refers: the sea as a symbol of man’s birth, life and death. Ultimately these motifs serve as visual metaphors for the vulnerability of man against nature, in which he will inevitably perish, but with the hope of Christian salvation.
Where to see this painting?
National Maritime Museum
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