Summer by Hans Wertinger

Hans Wertinger

Summer, c.1525, Oil on panel, 23.2 x 39.5 cm, The National Gallery, London; Bought, 1997, NG6568, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

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Rendering the Fruit

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Hans Wertinger uses confident, curling brushstrokes to imbue this rustic scene with the vibrancy of nature at the height of summer. The trunk of a sinuous tree reaches energetically beyond the confines of the picture’s fictive frame. A shepherd takes advantage of its shade to shear his sheep—the only moment of calm in this animated painting. Men waist-high in grasses vigorously scythe them for hay. A woman with a tray of fruit on her head makes her way out of the picture to market.

Wertinger uses the broad arc of a wide river to lead our eye to the range of mountains in the background and beyond as it continues its journey through the valley, curving round the conifer-studded slopes. 

Pinpointing the birth of landscape painting in its own right is not straightforward but Wertinger’s images and those of his German contemporaries such as Albrecht Altdorfer (shortly before 1480–1538) began to make landscapes an increasingly dominant feature of their religious and subject paintings. In this image, landscape is the vehicle of the subject: summer itself. 

Wertinger’s image derives from the illuminations of individual months and seasons found in medieval Books of Hours, which regulated Christian worship daily, monthly, and annually. These so-called ‘Labours of the Month’ charted the manual work associated with each month and/or season. Interleaved with the ordained devotions of the Christian year, religious worship and the cycles of nature were inextricably linked. Accompanied by depictions of autumn, winter, and spring, images like this often decorated domestic interiors—for example, in friezes running around the upper part of a room.

The relationship between the figures and the land they cultivate according to its internal rhythm of birth, fruition, and decay is key to this picture’s meaning. The landscape is not simply an abstractly beautiful scene, but it is—as in Hosea—a depiction of the people’s connection to nature, and to God. Hosea’s language is evocative of a lush Mediterranean garden replete with lilies (14:5), olives (v.6), and cypresses (v.8).

Images like Wertinger’s ventured into a secular sphere but they contained a moral meaning: God’s abundance dictated the course of the seasons and the livelihood and pleasure of every member of society. Hosea references the fruits of the communal effort of the harvest—both those that are basic (like grain—translated ‘garden’ in the RSV) and those that are festive (like wine (v.7)).

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