How to Read Art: St Jerome in a Rocky Landscape by Joachim Patenier
An early landscape painting that brilliantly weaves tradition and imagination
There is something magical about this painting, made in around 1520 by the Flemish artist Joachim Patenier, which shows a rugged and somewhat unreal landscape in which the Saint Jerome has made his hermit’s home.
St Jerome sits under a makeshift structure at the bottom-right of the painting. If you look closely you can see is actually doing something more than just biding his time in the desert: he has a lion for company. They appear to be shaking hands (or paws); in fact, Jerome is extracting a thorn out of the lion’s foot. This was a popular fable as told in the Golden Legend — a 13th century compendium of traditional stories about the saints and miracle tales — that Jerome helped the wild creature and thereafter they became devoted friends.
The first time I saw this painting it transported me to directly to the imagined landscapes I used to idealise as a child. The extraordinary rock formations, the way the landscape weaves over mountains, plateaus, forests and seas, and the not-quite-logical sense of perspective the lends the painting its air of fairy tale.
And there is more. In the middle section of the painting, where a flight of steps leads up to a monastery, another story is about to unfold. As popular tradition had it, the lion came live with Jerome in a monastery. Whilst there, the animal was charged with looking after the monastery’s donkey. But whilst the lion slept, the donkey was stolen by a troop of passing camel merchants. It was not long before the merchants appeared again and begged forgiveness for their crime. Jerome forgave them and they went on their way, leaving the monks with their lion and their donkey.
The purpose of much Christian art was to visualise the stories of the Bible and the lives of the Saints, and in doing so, act as a point of stimuli for worshipers to meditate on the themes of the faith.
This painting, I think, does something else too, since it places St Jerome in a landscape that only the imagination can quite comprehend. Those extraordinary rock formations bubbling up from the ground like ossified clouds fit with the fantastical element of the story. If ever a painting paid homage to the role of creativity in religious faith, then this is it.
Patenier has also made a wonderful job of structuring the painting using variable colours, with nearer objects shown in more earthy tones of green and brown, and the distant elements in more bluish shades. The landscape also snakes and overlaps, encouraging the eye to move around the painting, over and around the thrusting rock structures towards the sky and sea in the distance.
St Jerome was a popular subject in art. He was born Dalmatia, in what is modern-day Croatia. He lived between 342–420; in 386 he settled in Bethlehem where, over many years, he translated the Old and New Testaments of the Bible into Latin, a version that was declared the official Latin text by the 16th century Council of Trent.
Depictions of Jerome in art often show him in his study as a man of learning, reading the Bible or shown in the act of transcribing it. Sometimes paintings show him wearing cardinal’s robes and holding a model of a church, which allude to his position as a Doctor of the Church.
In this painting, Jerome is shown in another popular mode of depiction, as a penitent man living in the desert, dishevelled and wearing little more than a cloth shirt. This image of Jerome comes from the time he retired to the Syrian desert for four years to live as a hermit and study Hebrew, in his own words, with “only the scorpions and wild beasts for company.”
St Jerome is only a small element in this painting, most of which is given over to the depiction of a landscape, wonderfully strange and lucid as it is.
Patenier was an early pioneer of landscape painting as an independent subject in its own right. Indeed, he was the first Flemish painter to regard himself as a landscape painter first, and a painter of religious scenes second. His distinct style of panoramic landscapes with wild rock formations and fairy tale mountains and rivers made a decisive contribution to Western art, turning the natural world into place of drama and fanciful allusion.