In 1521, Albrecht Dürer climbed to the top of St Bavo’s cathedral in the Flemish city of Ghent. From 90 metres up in the sky, the travelling artist looked down at a world stretching into infinity. The view, however, offered something else too, a look inside the mind of a new friend, Joachim Patinir.
It was Patinir (circa 1480/85 – 1524) who could claim to be the first painter to make landscape the real subject of his art. Although all his surviving paintings have a biblical or classical theme, what they really treat is the great sweep of nature. Using a then novel horizontal format and adopting a raised foreground – which Dürer emulated from the top of the belfry – they show endless vistas in which man, however holy, is just another detail in God’s wide creation. They depict setting more than subject.
Before Dürer came to the end of his tour of the Low Countries and returned to his native Nuremberg, he attended Patinir’s second wedding (to Johanna Noyts, who may have brought a useful dowry with her), and, as a lover of drink and company, the pre-nuptial celebrations too. He made both a now-lost drawing of the groom and a note in his diary that is one of the few recorded contemporary mentions of Patinir. His friend, said Dürer, was “der gut landschafft maler” – the good painter of landscapes: this is the first known use of landschaft in an artistic context.
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Little is known about Patinir’s life. He was born in either Dinant or Bouvignes, villages near one another on the river Meuse, and may have trained with Gerard David in Bruges or just possibly with Hieronymus Bosch. What is certain is that he was enrolled in the Antwerp guild of painters in 1515. The port city was a centre of both trade and cartography and the influence of maps is strong in Patinir’s work. His pictures are all about looking down on the earth and seeing a range of geographical features laid out in sequence – mountains, rocks, woods, fields and rivers – just as a map-maker would. His type of imaginary scenes became known as Weltlandschaft – world landscape – for the way they combined such disparate elements not just as a delight for the eye but to give his patrons a sense of divine omniscience.
Guild records show that Patinir never registered an assistant, though, as Dürer attested, he did have pupils (Dürer borrowed one from him, as well as materials) and ran a thriving studio. Nevertheless, his output was small; as few as 15 paintings are now ascribed to him, with roughly the same number emanating from his workshop. Despite this, his reputation was high. In 1540 Felipe de Guevara, a Spanish humanist who knew Patinir in Flanders and was artistic assessor to both Charles V and Philip II, put him alongside Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden in renown. He also said that a picture of a shipwreck that he owned was Patinir’s way of commemorating a near-death experience, which gives some credence to the idea that the painter might have travelled to Genoa in 1511.
If Patinir’s short life is largely a blank, the same is not true of his pictures. This painting, Landscape with St Jerome (1516-17), now in the Prado in Madrid, is full of detail, from the rabbit in the centre of the foreground (which coincidentally mimics Dürer’s famous watercolour of a hare) to the tiny windmill in the lee of the central mountain on the horizon. For Karel van Mander, the Flemish Vasari, whose book of painters was published in 1604, it was this attention to minutiae that was Patinir’s real strength: “He was a master of great patience or diligence who put a great deal of time and effort into his works.” These traits were just as admirable as natural talent since “painters, scholars… princes and captains have, by suppressing laziness, ascended by hard work to renown and honour”.
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Diligence is evident not just in the pin-prick steeples, bridges and boats but in the careful way the composition enhances the narrative. The picture in fact comprises two landscapes: the great jagged rock under which St Jerome sits divides the panel into the realms of edification on the left and diversion on the right. These in turn are divided into upper and lower quarters. The story of St Jerome features directly in three of the quarters and more subtly in the fourth.
The ascetic saint apocryphally tamed a lion by pulling out a thorn from its paw. This is the action shown by Patinir in the foreground, with the suffering animal emitting a plaintive roar (Patinir probably knew what the creature looked like: there were lions in the imperial zoos in Ghent and Brussels). The scene behind depicts the saint’s monastery at Bethlehem with the tiny figure of the now devoted lion at his master’s heels. Jerome gave the lion the job of watching over his donkey but it proved to be a hapless guard and the animal was stolen. In the right foreground is a later episode in which the disgraced lion recognises the donkey and rushes towards it to reclaim it, toppling off its new owner in fright.
The story is supposed to have taken place in the deserts of the Holy Land but here it unfolds in an imagined northern realm. Some elements, however, are true to life: the serrated rocks of the left portion may look unnatural but are based on Bayard Rock, a well-known formation at Dinant, where just such strata cascade down to the Meuse.
The upper right quarter, which contains the most distant view, still refers to the saint; this is the world of people, with its towns and commerce, from which he retreated in order to fast and pray in the wilderness. It was this sort of aery vista that would imprint itself on the art of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Meanwhile, the rock that forms the saint’s home is also a tunnel through which the road passes on its way to the distant monastery. This curious iconography may refer to lines from St Matthew’s Gospel: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
Patinir’s painting is, therefore, about the act of looking itself: first there is a varied landscape to give simple pleasure; look harder and there is a biblical story to discover and then follow; and look with a spiritual eye and there is an allegory of the pilgrimage of the soul here too. In angled light, the top of the painting also reveals a curve showing that it was once part of a triptych; this then was a painting always intended to inspire divine reflections.
One thing is missing though. Van Mander records that Patinir had a “custom of painting a little man doing his business [a kakker] in all his landscapes and he was therefore known as ‘The Shitter’”. In truth he only used the motif three times and there is no sign of a kakker in this picture. Patinir may not have been unremittingly devout but he knew full well that there was a time and place for grotesqueries and dropping your breeches when a lion is about is foolish in the extreme.
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This article appears in the 10 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Grief nation