Away from the prying eyes of the Vatican, a new form of secular art emerged in the so-called Low Countries of Europe that subverted the deeply religious or, to be specific, Catholic connotations Western art embodied. Grandiose displays of Christ and various Christian figures gave way to more modest representations of contemporary life. However, this change was not sudden and was not as watertight as the previous sentence suggests. Flemish and Dutch artists were still working within a largely Christian framework and therefore their art also conformed to the demands of religion, but they incorporated their own visual iconography in their works. It is erroneous to suggest that there was any sort of atheism or aversion towards religion involved in the growth of this new form, it was merely curiosity that prompted these masters to transfer new images and indeed, older established ones from what they saw and experienced to the wood or canvas on which they painted.
Flemish artists developed oil painting, heralding a new age of detailed paintings that would become synonymous with the Renaissance. One of the fathers of the Flemish Renaissance, Jan Van Eyck showed his Italian counterparts the rich visual descriptions of religious figures and of nature, architecture in almost boastful manner using oil. The Altarpiece at Ghent is a more-than-suitable example of the new and exciting medium of painting.
Altarpiece at Ghent, Jan Van Eyck.
Giorgio Vasari, Renaissance art critic, perpetuated the myth that Van Eyck had “invented” oil painting. Although that is far from the truth because there must have been Flemish painters around that time, who were developing the new medium simultaneously. Van Eyck, however, can be credited with bringing the medium to the forefront. Oil enabled him to bring about a realism in this art that was hitherto impossible and this can be interpreted as a precursor to the landscape paintings that later generations of masters would produce.
Van Eyck’s paintings did not strictly adhere to the religious art that early Flemish renderings of manuscripts contained. Although the Ghent Altarpiece did recall the old medieval tradition, his works were also found in the more secular region of the spectrum.
Arnolfini Portrait, Jan Van Eyck.
“Oil paintings often depict things. Things which in reality are buyable. To have a thing painted and put on a canvas is not unlike buying it and putting it in your house. If you buy a painting you buy also the look of the thing it represents.”
John Berger in this emphatic essay on oil painting in Ways of Seeing, draws our attention to the commodification of art. Religious depictions were free from the clutches of being commodified as no God-fearing merchant and most definitely no monastic being would dare proclaim that they “own” a representation of the Father and the Son. The Arnolfini Portrait or the Arnolfini Marriage is a bona fide example of secular oil painting created for the sole purpose of showing wealth and grandeur of a man and his wife. It is a portrait that places man at the centre surrounded by the wealth that he has amassed and ergo, it is a portrait that can be owned. It is a representation of the advancement that the Low Countries were obsessed with and the inadvertent downsizing of religion that the art of those countries were slowly adopting.
A literal one at that.
Detail showing Christ’s Passion in Arnolfini Wedding, Jan Van Eyck.
Joachim Patinir, the landscape artist from Dinant, Belgium, subverted the medieval traditions like his predecessors in his keen interest on landscape. This paper will go on to discuss how Patinir’s small corpus of work encapsulates the religious subversion that defined the Renaissance, became a marker for change in the world of art as well as the emergence of a new subject of painting: the landscape through three paintings of his.
Relatively little is known about this Belgian master and anything we can surmise from a few of his paintings can be dismissed as merely conjectural. Many critics have regarded him as the painter who started the “autonomous landscape” tradition with von Baldass proclaiming him as the inventor in 1918. While it cannot be confirmed, like Van Eyck, he did help in introducing the Western world to a new perspective in art.
“Landscape painting is essentially a romantic art, an art invented by a lowland people who had no landscape of their own.”
Herbert Read, in The Meaning of Art, acknowledges Patinir as the first painter to start this tradition and goes on to state why his desire to paint landscapes stemmed from a need to imagine spaces he was not used to. Although other Dutch and Flemish painters would be in awe of their surroundings and strive to recreate it on wood or canvas. It is true that his native Dinant scenery was not as picturesque as the one he has painted below.
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Joachim Patinir.
As opposed to the medieval tradition of painting larger than life portrayals of biblical characters, and with the advent of “perspective” with the dawn of the Renaissance, Patinir reduced the size of the Madonna and the Son and thus draws our attention to the background of the painting. This can be interpreted as a compromise of sorts. Patinir’s curiosity regarding the autonomous landscape could have been tempered by the inclusion of an older tradition. With the rich detail of the mountains, river, animals, trees and architecture surrounding the two human figures, it is as if he wants the spectator to avert his gaze from the actual subject of the painting to its environment.
This painting was produced sometime in the first half of the sixteenth century and a later portrayal of the same biblical allegory done by Italian Baroque master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio shows the opposite depiction. The landscape is the beautiful, albeit insignificant backdrop of the painting and the figures remain the focus.
St. Jerome in a Rocky Landscape, Joachim Patinir.
Even though St. Jerome is intended to be in the foreground of the painting, the jagged rocky terrain that rises ominously in the background overshadows his penitent figure. Patinir’s obsession with landscape has led him to create a language of art that denies religion its centrality in society without removing it entirely. It was not an atheistic drive that made masters like Patinir paint such landscapes. The Flemish was a society that was deeply “wedded in religious piety.”
If this representation is contrasted with that of Titian’s, it would only further consolidate the argument that for Flemish painters, or at least, for Patinir, St. Jerome was no longer the primary concern of the painting.
The third and last painting from Patinir’s body of work that we will discuss is the one that completely rejects the presence of Christian allegory in his work, instead choosing to portray the real concern of the contemporary times: trade.
Portuguese Carracks off a Rocky Coast, Joachim Patinir.
Portuguese Carracks off a Rocky Coast shows the maritime advancement of Europe, especially countries like Portugal, Spain, Holland, etc. Painted in the early half of the sixteenth century, sometime around fifteen hundred and forty, it is a representation of the realistic opulence of the world as Patinir knew it and not an idyllic religious setting. In the Arnolfini Wedding, there are diminished portrayals of Christianity. There is nothing of that sort here, which is emblematic of a new age of discovery, of scientific and mercantile achievements and an assertion of power that would change the course of history.
Hieronymus Bosch could see the “perversion” of the world that was rampant around him and he sought refuge in religion, denouncing the sinful world through paintings like The Garden of Earthly Delights. Patinir’s landscapes were similar to those of Bosch’s, but the diminishing position of religion is quite obvious in the former’s work.
Perhaps Patinir’s ethos finds resonance in Pieter Breugel’s painting, The Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Icarus is disappearing from the frame as he drowns. The world exists despite that event. Maybe Patinir, too, wanted to show that history refuses to accommodate stray events, that individual history does not fit into the grand narrative of time.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Pieter Breugel the Elder.
The landscape, supposedly pioneered by Patinir, therefore became an instrument of secularisation. Equipped with tools like oil painting, an acceptance of insignificant figures and surroundings in comparison with the religious figures that had to be portrayed, an established tradition that accommodated both religious and secular art, Patinir finally developed new ways of perceiving surroundings through the two-dimensional space of painting, that was later established by Rubens and generations later by Constable, Gainsborough and Turner.
According to Herbert Read, Patinir could not fully estimate the gravity of his subjects and that was why he introduced the biblical figures. That still does not take away from the fact that he became a part of a new movement that withdrew itself from religion, whilst remaining very much within its fold and edged towards mercantile capitalism. In doing so, he produced a series of stunning paintings that would become a turning point in art and Dürer acknowledged the genius of Patinir upon meeting him:
“Der gut landschaft mahler.”
1. Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1972.
2. Buijsen, Edwin. “Review of R.L. Falkenburg, Joachim Patinir: landscape as an image of the pilgrimage of life.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 19:3 (1989), 209-215. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3780722 (accessed November 20, 2015).
3. Read, Herbert. The Meaning of Art. London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1931.
4. The High Art of the Low Countries, “Dream of Plenty.” Episode 1. Dir. Ian Leese. Writer Andrew Graham-Dixon. Perf. Andrew Graham-Dixon. BBC Four, April 4, 2013.