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Joachim Patinir (c. 1480 – October 5, 1524) is one of my favorite painters, partly because the Met has an exquisite triptych by him, but mostly for his amazing ability to paint the entire sweep of life within his landscapes—a form the Germans called Weltlandschaft (“world landscape”).
In this painting, Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx, currently held by the Prado, the ferryman Charon rows a departed soul down the River Styx. On the left side of the painting is paradise, a land of fountains, forests, and rivers emptying out into rich wetlands. On the right lies the infernal city of the damned. The tiny wavering spirit must choose–but see how his eyes dart towards Hell and away from the beckoning angel…
This painting is divided by color from front to back. The foreground is the brown of earth. Lilies, irises, and other flowers sprout directly out of the soil and work their way into the umber rocks. The middle of the painting is green and filled up with birds, angels, and forest creatures. The far horizon is pale blue dotted with tiny churches and universities.
The painting is also divided by color from left to right. Paradise is pastoral: a country landscape of green, blue, and white. The angels are interspersed with deer and geese. Hell is portrayed in black and orange and red. But Patinir’s hell is a different affair from Bosch’s hell, which had been painted a generation before. Three headed Cerberus seems quiet and oddly plaintive. The lands in front of the gate are filled with fruit trees, lilies and parrots. It is true that the gatehouse is decked in hanged corpses, but so would be the entrance to any town in Patinir’s native Wallonia. In fact aside from the occasional ogre or impaled human, the horrors of Dis are almost too indistinct to make out. It could almost be a foundry or just a smoky medieval town rather than the abode of the damned.
Of course there is a moralizing message in Patinir’s work. The indecisive spirit must choose between right and wrong. But the choice is not the stark choice offered by Bosch or van Eyck. The painter is not proselytizing relentlessly, rather the mood is elegiac. Heaven is the wilderness: countryside, animals, trees, and solitude. Hell looks like a city with all the hurly-burly of society. If we stripped the painting of its Medieval Flemish context it could almost be an environmentalist artwork–or at least a defense of country pleasures against the press of urban living.