Luke’s account of Jesus spiritual struggle before his arrest is briefer that that of Matthew and Mark – there is only one prayer- but he adds the detail of an angel ministering to Jesus. Rembrandt is good at angels: there is the one who stops Abraham killing Isaac, and the splendid one who whispers in the ear of Matthew as he writes his gospel. He understands the beauty and balance of the wings.
Here the angel has come to comfort Jesus in his agony of spirit, providing what his disciples are unable or unwilling to give. Jesus is on his knees in prayer, knowing that he must go to his death. His body is depicted as pliant, without strength, so the bird of heaven must land and perch beside him. The angel’s wings remain unfolded, enclosing Jesus, and the legs are bent, squatting in front of him to provide support.
The angel’s face is poised to look with tender concern at Jesus’ face, which however is closed to his gaze as Jesus simply leans into the angel’s embrace, and continues to pray.
The angel is a sign of what the father God can and can’t do: he can send heaven’s comfort, but he is in heaven and cannot accompany Jesus to his death. So the comfort given to the son of God is no better than that given to any man facing death; only the man can do what must be done and suffer what must be suffered. The wings are the giveaway; they do not belong to the earth. Soon the bird will fly off, and the man will have decided to face his enemies.
All this in a brief sketch.