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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Natural World Art: The Penitence of St. Jerome (triptych)

» Joachim Patinir (Netherlandish, d. 1524)

The Penitence of St. Jerome (triptych)

The Penitence of St. Jerome (triptych)
Artist / Origin: Joachim Patinir (Netherlandish, d. 1524)
Region: Europe
Date: ca. 1518
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
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

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.

Expert Perspective:
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.”

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.

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