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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

Additional Resources

DeLue, Rachel Z., and James Elkins. Landscape Theory (The Art Seminar). London: Routledge, 2007.

Falkenburg, Reinhardt L. “Joachim Patinir: Landscape As an Image of the Pilgrimage of Life.” Oculi 2 (February 1989).

Gibson, Walter S. “Mirror of the Earth”: The World Landscape in Sixteenth-Century Flemish Painting. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Harbison, Craig. The Mirror of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art in Its Historical Context. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York: Vintage, 1996.

Silver, Larry. Peasant Scenes and Landscapes: The Rise of Pictorial Genres in the Antwerp Art Market. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

The Penitence of St. Jerome (triptych)

» Joachim Patinir (Netherlandish, d. 1524)

Joachim Patinir’s triptych features the penitent St. Jerome in its central panel.

The left wing shows Christ’s baptism and the right depicts St. Anthony, whom demons attempt to distract from prayer. The subject matter of the work is fairly typical of Northern European religious art in the early sixteenth century. What is extraordinary, however, is Patinir’s approach to landscape. The St. Jerome triptych offers an early example of the “world landscapes” that eventually came to dominate Patinir’s compositions and for which he gained fame even in his own era.

What we now refer to as the “world landscape” is a composite image that brings a diversity of topographical elements into a single frame and gives an expansive, almost panoramic view of the horizon. In Patinir’s work for instance, there are wooded areas, rocky outcroppings, lowlands, mountains, and ocean. This is not an image modeled on reality (mountains like these do not exist in the Netherlands), but an image that presents the reality of the larger world as a microcosm. Although the scene is in some ways a fantasy, it is in others the result of meticulous study. In the left foreground of the central panel, for instance, it seems as though the artist has lavished attention on each individual leaf.

Patinir’s landscapes rely on a technique known as aerial (or atmospheric) perspective. In contrast to linear perspective, which is based on geometry and mathematic calculations, aerial perspective is created through the manipulation of color and form. To create a sense of receding space, the artist uses a three-tone system, by which green is predominant in the foreground, blue in the middle ground, and gray in the background. As the colors change, they gradually lose saturation. Similarly, objects meant to be seen as closer to the viewer are rendered in precise detail. Things in the distance are given less detail and are smaller in size.

The comprehensive view and illusion of depth that Patinir presents in this triptych work together to lure the viewer into the landscape, which serves a metaphoric as well as an aesthetic function. It has been suggested, for instance, that one is meant to wander (virtually, of course) through the painting as a pilgrim would in life, pausing along the way to ponder the morals of various narratives scattered throughout the three panels. The triptych might also offer a broader lesson—that one must, like the holy figures depicted, turn one’s back on the world in order to find spiritual truth.

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