This paper provides a detailed interpretation of a little-known yet extraordinary painting from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Christ in a Landscape by Jan Swart van Groningen (ca. 1530–1540). This work is a perfect illustration of the importance of the popular Christian metaphor of the “Book of Nature” in early modern art, especially in the Reformed circles to which Swart likely belonged. Beyond offering an explanation for the presence of some strange aspects of the landscape (a snail, shells and colored pearls, unicorns, rocks with anthropomorphic features, etc.), the article explores the ways in which the elements of the landscape engaged the viewer in a hermeneutic process, a process of interpretation and reflection on the mysteries of nature and faith. The painting is a meditation on kenosis – the dual nature of Christ as both divine and human, and thus belonging to Nature just like the most insignificant of its creatures.
Galileo Galilei“The Assayer,” in The Controversy on the Comets of 1618edited by Stillman Drake Charles D. O’Malley (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1960) pp. 183–184. See also Carla Rita Palmerino “The Mathematical Characters of Galileo’s Book of Nature” in The Book of Nature in Early Modern and Modern History edited by Klaas van Berkel Arjo Vanderjagt (Leuven: Peeters 2006) pp. 27–44. On the metaphor of the book of Nature see also Ernst Robert Curtius European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (New York: Harper & Row 1963) pp. 319–326; James Bono The Word of God and the Languages of Man: Interpreting Nature in Early Modern Science and Medicine (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1995) pp. 123–198; Olaf Pedersen The Book of Nature (Vatican City State: Vatican Observatory 1992); Klaas van Berkel Arjo Vanderjagt (eds.) The Book of Nature in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Leuven: Peeters 2005); Kevin Killeen Peter J. Forshaw (eds.) The Word and the World: Biblical Exegesis and Early Modern Science (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2007); Jitse M. van der Meet Scott Mandelbrote (eds.) Nature and Scripture in the Abrahamic Religions (Leiden: Brill 2008).
Arnold Witte“The Power of Repetition: Christian Doctrine and the Visual Exegesis of Nature in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Painting,” in Sacred Landscapeedited by Denis Ribouillault Michel Weemans (cit. note 1) pp. 93–112.
Denis Ribouillault Michel Weemans“Paysage sacré, livre de la nature et exégèse: pour une reconception du paysage dans l’ Europe de la première modernité,” in Sacred Landscapeedited by Denis Ribouillault Michel Weemans (cit. note 1) pp. ix–xxxi.
Max J. Friedländer“Zu Jan Swart van Groningen,”Oud-Holland1948 63:2–9 p. 6. For Swart’s biography see especially Max J. Friedländer Antonis Mor and his Contemporaries comments and notes by Henri Pauwels Gerard Lemmens with Monique Gierts translated by Heinz Norden (Leiden Brussels: A.W. Sijthoff; La Connaissance 1975) pp. 13–14 74–75 109. Little is known of Jan Swart Carel van Mander being our main source of information: “Vriesland may have been frozen and entirely withered up but in Groningen a splendid shoot of art rose to rejuvenate the renown of the city; and the aroma of the beautiful flower which it produced was so splendid that I could be accused readily of the worst possible neglect if I did not try to cause her perfume to spread as far as possible. All this refers to a crowning ornament in painting the illustrious Jan Swart frequently called Swart Jan. He was born in Oost Vriesland at Groningen and lived at Ter Goude for a few years at the time when Jan Schoorel came back from Italy about the year 1522 or 1523. This Swart Jan painted landscapes nudes and figures in the same style as did Schoorel. Jan Swart travelled to Italy and lived a little while in Venice and like Schoorel imported into this country another method of painting which differed from the unaesthetic modern way of painting and was more in accordance with the Italian style. I cannot enumerate this painter’s works. But to realize the power in them and their virtue one has only to look at the remarkable woodcuts which he made. They represent a group of Turks on horseback with bows and arrows and are done cleverly and deftly; a print of Christ is done very beautifully too – He is preaching from the deck of a ship and some people in the foreground are listening and are seen from the back.” Carel van Mander Dutch and Flemish Painters trans. by Constant van de Wall (New York: Arno Press 1969) pp. 111 462. It is believed Swart was born around 1500 and died in Gouda or Antwerp in or about 1558. Jan Swart is best known for his work as a woodcut artist and he was also an important designer of stained-glass windows. Many of his drawings are preserved. However there is as yet no comprehensive monograph on the artist and his œuvre. For his woodcuts see especially Ellen S. Jacobowitz Stephanie Loeb Stepanek The Prints of Lucas van Leyden and his Contemporaries exhibition catalog (Washington DC: National Gallery of Art 1983) pp. 314–317.
Eric JorinkReading the Book of Nature in the Dutch Golden Age 1575–1715 (Leiden: Brill2010) pp. 42–46. On Luther’s view of nature see also Richard Strier “Martin Luther and the Real Presence in Nature” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies Spring 2007 37/2:271–303. On natural philosophy in the Lutheran context see Sachiko Kusukawa The Transformation of Natural Philosophy: The Case of Philip Melanchthon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1995); Peter Barker “The Lutheran Contribution to the Astronomical Revolution” in Religious Values and the Rise of Science in Europe edited by John Brooke Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu (Istanbul: Research Centre for Islamic Art History and Culture 2005) pp. 31–62; Anne-Charlott Trepp Von der Glückseligkeit alles zu wissen. Die Erforschung der Natur als religiöse Praxis in der Frühen Neuzeit (Frankfurt: Campus Verlag 2009); Ead. “Natural Order and Divine Salvation: Protestant Conceptions in Early Modern Germany (1550–1750)” in Natural Law and Laws of Nature in Early Modern Europe: Jurisprudence Theology Moral and Natural Philosophy edited by Lorraine Daston Michael Stolleis (Burlington VT: Ashgate 2008) pp. 123–142; Kathleen Crowther “The Lutheran Book of Nature” in The Book of Nature and Humanity in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance edited by David Hawkes (Turnhout: Brepols 2013) pp. 19–40.
Walter GibsonMirror of the Earth: The World Landscape Tradition in Sixteenth-Century Flemish Painting (Princeton: Princeton University Press1989). On Patinir see Reindert L. Falkenburg Joachim Patinir: Landscape as an Image of the Pilgrimage of Life (Amsterdam: John Benjamins 1988). On Bles see Michel Weemans Herri Met de Bles. Les ruses du paysage au temps de Bruegel et d’ Érasme (Paris: Hazan 2013) especially pp. 105–133 on the articulation between the Book of Nature and the Book of Scriptures.
Timothy F. Lull (ed.)Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press1989) p. 110. On Luther’s views on incarnation see also Strier “Martin Luther and the Real Presence in Nature” (cit. note 17).
Reindert L. Falkenburg“Antithetical Iconography in Early Netherlandish Landscape Painting,” in Bruegel and Netherlandish Landscape Painting from the National Gallery Pragueexhibition catalogue (Tokyo: National Museum of Western Art 1990) pp. 25–36 p. 32. On the antithetical iconography of the desert and the paradise of the soul in a single landscape see also Michel Weemans “Le paysage monde comme pérégrination spirituelle et exégèse visuelle” in Fables du paysage flamand. Bosch Bles Brueghel Bril exhibition catalogue edited by Alain Tapié Michel Weemans (Paris: Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille/Somogy 2012) pp. 76–83. Whereas this duality is generally expressed between the right and left sides of the landscapes as in Joachim Patinir’s and Herri Met De Bles’s paintings Swart divides his landscape between the lower and the upper part something that corresponds to the scale of values applied to the human body from the humblest part (the feet) to the most noble part (the head).
See further Brigitte Buettner“Precious Stones, Mineral Beings: Performative Materiality in Fifteenth-Century Northern Art,” in The Matter of Artedited by Christy Anderson Anne Dunlop Pamela H. Smith (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2014) pp. 205–222: 216–217.
See Mireille Huchon“Palissy et un monde journellement renouvelé. Rêverie sur le psaume 104 et les coquilles,” in Aux origines de la géologie de l’ Antiquité au Moyen Ageedited by Claude Thomasset Joëlle Ducos Jean-Pierre Chambon (Paris: Champion 2010) pp. 267–279.
Paul ZankerThe Mask of Socrates: The Image of the Intellectual in Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press1995). Accessible at http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft3f59n8b0/ (accessed 10 October 2017).
Tom ConleyAn Errant Eye: Poetry and Topography in Early Modern France (London; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), p. 11. Corrozet’s book (Paris: Denis Janot1540) can be consulted online at http://www.emblems.arts.gla.ac.uk/french/emblem.php?id=FCGa020 (accessed 28 September 2016).