A Landscape with a Ruined Castle and a Church by Jacob van Ruisdael

Jacob van Ruisdael

A Landscape with a Ruined Castle and a Church, c.1665–70, Oil on canvas, 109 x 146 cm, The National Gallery, London; Wynn Ellis Bequest, 1876, NG990, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

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Life Under the Sun

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Jonathan Anderson

Many of Ecclesiastes’s questions are concerned with the fact that human history unfolds within natural cycles that undermine and undo historical progress. This introduces an acute sense of futility into human experience: ‘What do people [adam] gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?’ (Ecclesiastes 1:3). The Hebrew phrase ‘under the sun’ (tahat hashamesh) appears in the biblical canon only in Ecclesiastes but does so numerous times throughout this book, designating the spatial and temporal domain of earthly creaturely life, as distinguished from heaven (see Ecclesiastes 5:2), and the place of the dead (9:6). Ecclesiastes scrutinizes life ‘under the sun’ (1:13–14), toiling over the possibilities and limits of assessing the theological meanings of life ‘from below’. Jacob van Ruisdael extends this toil into a pictorial medium.

Amidst the dark shadows that cover the earth in Ruisdael’s Landscape, a sunlit clearing appears in the field beyond the church, where a lone windmill stands facing the wind. On the one hand, this tiny windmill punctuates the cyclical patterns at the heart of Ecclesiastes’s prologue:

‘The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns’ (1:5–6).

The windmill signifies the futilities of human enterprise within these cycles, serving as a sort of architectural hieroglyph for ‘chasing after the wind’ (1:14, 17).

On the other hand, E. John Walford highlights another theological context in which the sunlit windmill carried further symbolism for Ruisdael: ‘In emblem literature, a man without the spirit of God is compared to a mill without wind. In one such emblem, light-beams, focused on the mill, accentuate the notion of man’s dependence on providence’ (Walford 1991: 151). Ruisdael’s windmill might well signify a vain toiling ‘under the sun’ but there is perhaps also a further spiritual meaning underlying this first one—one that solicits us to reimagine how open or closed the world and its inhabitants are to the Giver of life.

 

References

Walford, E. John. 1991. Jacob van Ruisdael and the Perception of Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press)