John Berney Crome’s Great Gale at Yarmouth on Ash Wednesday invites us into the Lenten season with a story told in the visual language of romanticism. This style of painting often showcased strong emotion through the power and majesty of nature. Crome preferred marine and coastal scenes, as in the case of this turbulent depiction of clouds and waves converging on the coast of Yarmouth.
The main forces in this scene are the waves and the clouds. The clouds, dynamic in their movement, communicate the unseen power of the wind. That wind stirs up the waves that toss the boat on the left and sprays water forcefully against the row of coastal houses on the right. This all brings to mind a battle between nature and the human-made elements of the scene.
The clouds are varied: large white clouds in the back against patches of sky are overshadowed by dark storm clouds in the front. These storm clouds are slanted and purging themselves of rain in the wind. The central black cloud is especially imposing; it is smeared, in the shape of a cross, much like the sign marked on foreheads on Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday’s second reading calls out with urgency: “now is the acceptable time…now is the day of salvation.” Lent calls us to conversion, and conversion without delay. The path to the Easter font, though, is often through turbulent waters. Like the boat in Crome’s painting, we are tossed in the waves of our own desires and follies. Or, like the shore houses on the right, we are assaulted by our temptations and selfishness. Ash Wednesday is the day to face these anew with the belief that the wind is not a threat, but perhaps the breath of the Spirit that seeks to drive away all that keeps us from the fullness of life.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.