Arent de Gelder’s painting captures the essence of a miraculous moment described in the Gospel of St. Luke 22:39–46, when an angel, descended from Heaven, comforts and supports Christ as he prays in a wooded grove at the Garden of Gethsemane near the Mount of Olives. The angel, dressed in radiant white robes, tenderly reaches toward the kneeling Savior, who prays with lowered head and raised hands. Simultaneously, and with a gesture that visually strengthens their bond, the angel’s extended wing wraps around and embraces Christ. The two figures glow in a pool of heavenly light, more spiritual than physical. It overwhelms the profound darkness of the evening, dimly illuminating the surrounding olive trees and three sleeping disciples huddled together in the immediate foreground.
Christ’s encounter with the angel occurred on Passover, shortly after the Last Supper when he had informed his disciples that one of them would betray him, and before Judas betrayed him in the Garden of Gethsemane. After the Passover feast, Jesus, as was his custom, went to the garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives with a few of his followers, whom the Gospel of St. Matthew identifies as Peter and the sons of Zebedee, James and John.1 When Christ arrived in the garden, according to the Gospel of St. Luke, he urged his disciples to “pray that you will not come into temptation.” He then moved “about a stone’s throw” away and prayed to God: “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not my will, but Yours be done.”2 As in answer to his plea, an angel descended from Heaven to succor him in his agony. Luke relates that, even with the angel by his side, Christ’s suffering was so intense that “His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.”3 He then discovered that his disciples, exhausted from sorrow, had fallen asleep. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Christ admonished Peter with these words: “So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? Keep watching and praying, so that you do not come into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”4
Small though this painting may be, it powerfully captures the sense of isolation and anguish that consumed Christ as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, even while being supported by the angel. The emotional intensity of De Gelder’s interpretation of this drama is enhanced by the visionary quality of the scene. While Christ and the angel are brilliantly lit, they are relatively small and distant from the viewer. They also appear insubstantial, for De Gelder only broadly suggested their figures with thick impastos and flowing brushstrokes. Translucencies in the angel’s white robes, intended or not, suggest the spiritual nature of the figure comforting Christ at this frightful moment.
As was often the case throughout his career, Arent de Gelder drew inspiration from Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) when devising his composition, primarily echoing the master’s print of the same subject (fig 1),5 but perhaps also a related drawing (fig 2).6 Both of these works date from the late 1650s, just prior to the period during which De Gelder studied with the master. In each composition, Rembrandt similarly depicted a winged angel embracing Christ as he prays on a small knoll. Heavenly light, streaming in from the upper left, breaks through the night’s darkness to illuminate the figures. Situated somewhat apart from them are the sleeping disciples, entirely unaware of the dramatic encounter occurring nearby.
Even though De Gelder drew heavily on one or both of Rembrandt’s compositions, he diverged from them in multiple ways to impart his own interpretation of the biblical story. De Gelder’s scene is more restrained, and the figures of Christ and the angel are less physical than those in Rembrandt’s drawing and etching. He eschewed the diagonals that Rembrandt used to heighten the drama of the scene, among them the light rays indicating the source of the heavenly light. Instead, to focus on the tender emotional support that the angel gives to Christ in his intense sorrow, De Gelder created a quieter composition, more circular than angular, where light seems to emanate from the figures themselves. The arched shapes of the olive trees surrounding Christ and the angel gently frame this miraculous encounter. De Gelder also reversed the relative positions of the sleeping disciples in relation to Christ and the angel. By situating the disciples in the immediate foreground, De Gelder afforded them greater significance within the biblical narrative than they had enjoyed in Rembrandt’s compositions, an importance that likely reflected his own deeply felt belief that Christ suffered to atone for our sins.
De Gelder’s religious ideas were undoubtedly formed during his early years in his native Dordrecht, a city that fully embraced the tenets of the Dutch Reformed Church. Central to the religious training De Gelder would have received was the Heidelberg Catechism, endorsed by the Dordrecht Synod of 1618–19, which was taught not only in the Reformed Church but also at home and in school. The Heidelberg Catechism presented church dogma in a question-and-answer format that students and parishioners carefully memorized.7
A major focus of the catechism was the enormity of Christ’s suffering at the end of his life. For example, one of the questions asked, “What do you understand by the word suffered?” The proscribed answer: “During his whole life on earth, but especially at the end, Christ sustained in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. This he did in order that, by his suffering as the only atoning sacrifice, he might deliver us, body and soul, from eternal condemnation, and gain for us God’s grace, righteousness, and eternal life.” The Heidelberg Catechism specifically stated that Christ’s suffering was due to God’s wrath “against the sin of the whole human race”; thus, his suffering was understood as a direct consequence of human failures, including those of the disciples who slept rather than prayed that they not succumb to temptation.
In addition to The Leiden Collection’s Christ on the Mount of Olives, the artist’s remarkable Passion Series, created in the last years of his life, also exemplifies De Gelder’s pictorial expression of Christ’s suffering. Arnold Houbraken discussed this series in his biographical account of the artist, which he wrote in 1715:
The last of his work was the Passion, otherwise known as the history of the suffering Christ, in 22 pieces, of which 20 are already completed, in which most artfully the many passions or emotions may be seen from recognizable expressions, just as there is an inconceivable variation of dress and strange contrivances with respect to the clothing of figures, supplements and choices of daylight and shadow. And I guess that these works will also be his last, because he already spends ample time going to church and visiting his friends. He is now, as I write this in the year 1715, still in good health and single.8
Much can be gleaned from this informative text. Houbraken, who was also a native of Dordrecht and thus fully versed in the Heidelberg Catechism and its emphasis on Christ’s suffering, remarks that the Passion Series was known as “the history of the suffering of Christ.” Houbraken notes that De Gelder had planned his series to number 22 works, 20 of which had already been completed by 1715 when he wrote his account. Houbraken discusses the remarkable range of passions or emotions that De Gelder incorporated in these works, as well as the variations in dress and costumes and his “choices of daylight and shadow.” Also important is his speculation that these works will be De Gelder’s “last, because he already spends ample time going to church and visiting his friends”—indicating that De Gelder’s religious beliefs remained strong throughout his life.
Twelve of the twenty-two paintings from the Passion Series mentioned by Houbraken, and listed in De Gelder’s inventory of 1727, are still known, with subjects ranging from The Last Supper to The Ascension of Christ. With two exceptions,9 the surviving paintings are in Aschaffenburg, at the Schloss Johannisburg, where they create a moving account of the dramatic events associated with the Passion described in the Gospels. Modest in size (72.1 x 59 cm) but powerful in visual impact, each of these scenes depicts small-scale elongated figures situated in an expansive spatial environment—whether in exterior settings, as in The Arrest of Christ, or indoors, as in Christ before Caiaphas, the two works from the series held by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Thematically and stylistically, Christ on the Mount of Olives relates to one of these paintings, Christ’s Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (fig 3), which suggests that De Gelder likely executed it around 1715 as well. In no other instance does such a close connection exist between one of De Gelder’s compositions and a painting from the Passion Series, which has suggested to many that Christ on the Mount of Olives was a preliminary study for Christ’s Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.10 On balance, however, this hypothesis seems unlikely.11 Paintings belonging to the Passion Series are vertical compositions, uniform in size, and executed on canvas supports, whereas Christ on the Mount of Olives is a horizontal composition and painted on panel. Among the compositional similarities that connect the two works are the small, light-filled figures of Christ and the angel situated within a dark, wooded landscape, and depictions of the disciples quietly sleeping nearby. Nevertheless, fundamental compositional and conceptual differences exist. For example, in Christ’s Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, the viewer looks down on the encounter between Christ and the angel, whereas in The Leiden Collection’s painting, the viewer looks up at them. As opposed to Christ on the Mount of Olives, in the related scene in the Passion Series, the viewer observes the scene from behind a wooden fence that separates the viewer, both physically and emotionally, from the miraculous encounter between the angel and Christ.
It is likely that neither the Passion Series nor Christ on the Mount of Olives in The Leiden Collection was painted on commission. John Loughman has convincingly proposed that the Passion Series, which remained in De Gelder’s possession to the end of his life and is listed in his inventory, was the artist’s personal meditation on Christ’s Passion.12 The same argument could be applied to Christ on the Mount of Olives, which represents an even more personal and emotionally charged evocation of the scene than its depiction in the Passion Series. Loughman further emphasized that De Gelder’s Passion Series shares many similarities with meditative literature—both poetry and passion books—that flourished in the late seventeenth century. Authors of these works, including the poets Jeremias de Decker (1609–66) and Heyman Dullaert (1636–84),13 described Christ’s sufferings in ways that would invite readers to contemplate why Christ endured such pain and reflect on the underlying meanings of his Passion.14
The earliest provenance history of Christ on the Mount of Olives is unknown, but by 1795, when it is first mentioned in the literature, the painting was in France and attributed to Rembrandt. The painting appeared in the estate sale of the Parisian collector and art dealer Claude-François Julliot (1727–94), where it was celebrated for making “presto an astonishing light effect that is admirable.”15 The painting next appeared in Paris in 1826 in the estate sale of the celebrated Baron Dominique-Vivant Denon (1747–1825), artist, diplomat, and former director of the Musées Royaux.16 In this sale, the attribution to Rembrandt was enthusiastically endorsed, not only for the painting’s unusual conceit but also for the magic of its color and light effects that create the sense of an “apparition.” The sale catalogue entry remarks specifically that the pose of Christ perfectly captures the agony that afflicted him: “This painting, extraordinary in its conception and in its effect, belongs entirely to the genius of Rembrandt.”17
After the sale, Christ on the Mount of Olives was acquired by the English art dealer Thomas Emmerson (1776–1855), who took the painting to London, where it soon entered the collection of John Charles Robinson (1824–1913), a painter and graphic artist who became a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the first president of the Burlington Fine Arts Club, and one of the founders of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers. At the time of the sale of his collection in 1868, Robinson published Memoranda on Fifty Pictures, in which he wrote about his supposed Rembrandt painting: “This most poetical and beautiful sketch may be compared with the celebrated little picture of Jacob’s Dream, in the Dulwich Picture Gallery (fig 4), and was probably executed about the same time and under the same influences.”18
At the recommendation of Robinson, who was artistic advisor to Sir Francis Cook (1817–1901), first Viscount of Monserrate, at Doughty House, Richmond, Christ on the Mount of Olives entered the Cook collection, which became one of the foremost English collections in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The attribution of the painting, however, was changed from Rembrandt to Arent de Gelder in 1914 when the third baronet Herbert Cook (1868–1939) published a catalogue of the collection. The attribution to Arent de Gelder, which has been universally accepted ever since, was made by J.O. Kronig (1887–1984), former director of the Frans Hals Museum, largely based on stylistic and thematic connections to De Gelder’s Passion Series.19
Christ on the Mount of Olives remained in the Cook family until 1966, when Sir Francis Ferdinand Maurice Cook (1907–78), fourth Baronet, Doughty House, Richmond, sold it at Christie’s in London.20 After passing through the hands of the New York / London art dealer Julius H. Weitzner (1895–1986), Christ on the Mount of Olives was auctioned at Sotheby’s in London in 1973,21 at which time the American art dealer Richard L. Feigen (1930–2021) purchased it for his private collection. Later that same year, Feigen acquired a second painting by De Gelder, Healing of the Sick (fig 5). Both works remained in Feigen’s private collection until his death and were acquired by The Leiden Collection in 2021.22