Turner - Fishermen

Turner's work depicts, to me, a group of fishermen on a wave tossed sea. It looks like a storm has just past with the clouds breaking up. The waves still give evidence of the storm. It is at night with only moon light to see by, and a lamp in the boat. There must be fish, however, because the gulls are fishing too. Perhaps the storm has tossed food up to the surface. The scene leads me to be impressed by the fishermen who continue to work stubbornly.

What ever the artist had in mind when he created this work, it speaks strongly of the church when you use religious symbolism to interpret it. To see the full image click on the detail above or here.

The SeaThe sea has been a sign of chaos. "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters." Gen 1:1-2. NAB. "This section...shows how God brought an orderly universe out of the primordial chaos." New American Bible, footnote 1, page 4. Catholic Book Publishing Co. NY.

It should be no surprise that the Jewish people would view the sea as chaos, as opposed to God or outside God. Most lived far from a great body of water. They were desert dwellers. After they left Egypt, they roamed for many years in the great desert until reaching the promised land. Many looking at the land today, might think it arid, but it was a land like a garden to them. For much of their history, they would not have had easy contact with the Mediterranean coast because it was controlled by their enemies. That is why when Noah fights God, and runs from him, he gets on a boat to cross the sea. He is leaving God's kingdom for chaos, but God is the God of even the sea. He makes sure that Johna can't succeed, and delivers him back at the shore. Jonah 1:3-2:10.

Jonah 1:3-4. "But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. The LORD hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up." NASB

fishermenThis is a boat of fishermen. Some of the apostles were fishermen too. Jesus uses this to make a pun and a prophecy. Matt. 4:17-20. "From that time Jesus began to proclaim, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.' As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea - for they were fishermen. And he said to them, 'Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.' Immediately they left their nets and followed him." NRSV. The reference to the kingdom fits too, because Jesus compares the Kingdom to a net.

Matt. 13:47-50. "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." NRSV.

The boat itself is a symbol for the church, the bark of Peter. The boat holds the apostles, and symbolically all of Christ's disciples. "'The world is a sea in which the Church, like a ship, is beaten by the waves, but not submerged,' a simile of St. Hippolytus, [which] may have inspire this image [of the church as a boat]. The image lingers in calling the central portion of the church the 'nave'... It also appears in the catacombs, as a symbol for the Church, which could survive any disaster." G. Sil, A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art, A Touchstone Book (1996) p. 134. We are doing God's work, fishing for people, in Peter's boat, the Church. However, we are strangers in a foreign land, i.e. the boat is on the sea, on the chaos that is not God. It is a dangerous and storm swept place, where even seasoned fishermen can fear. Yet the place that is not of God contains the people who need God, the people who need salvation.

Matt. 8:23-26. "Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, 'Lord, save us! We're going to drown!' He replied, 'You of little faith, why are you so afraid?' Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm." NIV.

This is a parable, a story that restates what Jesus said to Peter, and through him to us all who are the church. Matt. 16:18 "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it." NRSV.

lightEven during the struggle with the chaos represented by the wind and waves, and even with the fear inspired by the surrounding darkness, we can see the goal. We have hope. Whenever we see an interplay with light and darkness, we see God in the light. 1John 1:5 "This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all." NRSV. The light is God; it is Him penetrating the darkness to help; it is His promise of a kingdom of light that is our goal. We work to save people by bringing them to faith. We do this even though we ride a sea of chaos and are surrounded by the darkness of wrong. We do it because it is our call and because we can see the glimmer of our goal.


Even Turner's boat is touched by the light. That boat is not immersed in the gloom and neither are we. We have the grace, the presence of the Holy Spirit to guide, and assist us as we work.

Fishermen at Sea (The Cholmeley Sea Piece), 1796,
oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London. 49KB

The image was obtained from Carol Jackson Presents and is used according to the permission contained in her FAQ.

You might also look at Tintoretto's Christ at the Sea of Galilee at the Web Museum.


I am not an art critic or artist. I just invite others to think about the message presented by the work of art and then in meditation reflect on its application in your life. In addition, use your imagination. Put yourself in the position of one of the people depicted and feel what they feel. A painting may have tremendous spiritual meaning for you whether or not the artist intended it, or the art critics would agree. If you find meaning, work with that meaning thanking God.

Images are displayed here for non-profit religious and educational purposes only. No other use is intended or permitted. The text is by the Rev. Roger J. Smith, unless attributed to someone else, and is presented "as is". ©1997, Roger J. Smith. Comments can be sent to him.

NRSV scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

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