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10 / The Natural World

The Penitence of St. Jerome (triptych)
The Penitence of St. Jerome (triptych)
Artist / Origin Joachim Patinir (Netherlandish, d. 1524)
Region: Europe
Date ca. 1518
Material Oil on wood
Medium: Painting
Dimensions (Central panel) H: 46 ¼ in. (117.5 cm.), W: 32 in. (81.3 cm.) (overall, with engaged frame); (Each wing) H: 47 ½ in. (120.7 cm.), W: 14 in. (35.6 cm.) (overall, with engaged frame)
Location The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund

expert perspective

Larry SilverProfessor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

The Penitence of St. Jerome (triptych)

» Joachim Patinir (Netherlandish, d. 1524)

expert perspective

Larry Silver Larry Silver Professor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

Landscape painting actually began in the Netherlands, but it didn’t really begin with pictures we think of as landscapes. It often included very important figures in the corner, or in the foreground, usually figures who were saints or other objects of real attention. The landscape extends behind them, but it wasn’t the sole reason for the picture.

In a lot of early landscapes, mountains have a tendency to be the place that you go to. Part of that is biblical. Mount Sinai was where the Ten Commandments came from and the artists were all pretty familiar with their Bible. The mountains in the distance provide really the ultimate contrast, not only to the place where the saint is lodged, but also to the background cities.

The earliest landscapes had a tendency to be artificial, constructed out of lots of different parts. Those are the ones that modern-day scholars call ‘world landscapes’ because they have mountains next to valleys; they have farmlands next to cities; they have almost a cross-section of all the kinds of places you could have in a picture. What’s exciting about the early phase of landscape is sometimes how little the landscape looks like what they could have experienced. For the most part they made these things back in the studio. And that’s why the earliest landscapes don’t have any problem with the kind of artificiality and constructed nature of those really thick forests, those mountains next to flat plains, those places you wouldn’t actually see. It didn’t matter that they imagined landscape because they weren’t trying to represent an actual place. They were trying to construct a place appropriate to the figures that were in the picture. It’s really only with what we think of as Dutch Realism in the seventeenth century that artists increasingly tended to paint pictures of the places that they knew and loved and lived in.

If any artist deserves to be considered the father of landscape painting, in Europe at least, that man would be Joachim Patinir, who was active in the busy port city of Antwerp in the early sixteenth century. And Patinir’s image of St. Jerome in a landscape has most of the features that we think of as his inventions. It has an emphatic interest in contrasting the saint with a world full of other kinds of places—cities, farmlands, mountains—as well as the environment in the foreground that he’s chosen to make his little wilderness hut. And the saint here is really an integral part of the picture. Patinir’s invention of landscape is really an outgrowth of late medieval images that turn their back on the world and say the only really true response to temptation is to go away from it.” 

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