The Penitence of Saint Jerome,
Joachim Patinir, 1512-15
I was desperate and afraid. Where was my family; where was my mom, my dad, and my brothers and sister? I feared for the worse. A tornado got them, I was certain. Like many children at the age of five or six, I had an active imagination and my dream life was filled with stories of catastrophe. Most often they included wind storms in part because we lived in Western Pennsylvania and on occasion the sky touched down near our home in Harrisville. Just a day or two before I came home to an empty house, a place of security, we took shelter in our basement. “You weren’t here so I prayed,” I told my mother when she and the others eventually returned. I’m sure I cried. While they were nearby, my family was not close and I wanted to see them.
Blue is the color of “longing,” says poet Robert Hass, “because desire is full of endless distances.” In the 15th century, European painters began to use blue to create a sense of space through atmospheric perspective. This is certainly true in Pantinir’s St. Jerome, and it is why I return to it again and again on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While I’m drawn to this illusionistic reality, scholars refer to this work as a “world landscape” that is a composite image of diverse topographical elements. Rocky outcroppings, water, forests, and lowlands don’t exist in the Netherlands; it is a microcosm of a larger world. And so I wonder what I want from this natural world, what do I desire from a life that seems to be falling apart from around me. Like this painting, real life seems so far away. Reality for me has become so scary.
Jeffrey Morton, 04.18.2020