Jacob van Ruisdael’s landscape paintings rarely depict places precisely as they appeared. Rather, they are imaginative, synthetic mergers of several experiences: composite ‘views’ of the world designed to contemplate the structure of human experience in a mode deeply informed by and conversant with Ecclesiastes (Walford 1991). This particular painting presents an invented site (based on an area near Haarlem in the modern-day Netherlands) as a visual meditation on creaturely temporality.
In the foreground to the left, two shepherds pass the time in conversation, giving human scale to the massive expanse of space and of history that surrounds them. Opposite them, a ruined fortress stands in peaceful ineptitude: the ramparts have been overtaken by vegetation and grazing sheep, a shepherd and his dog casually stand in the breach of the wall, three white swans gently transverse the moat. Beyond them, the surface of the earth recedes endlessly toward the horizon, opening onto a vast plain dotted with villages, each marked with a church spire. Rows of stooked sheaves stand in the fields, signalling that harvest is underway. At the horizon, the earth gives way to the much greater expanse of the sky, filled with towering storm clouds that cast heavy shadows down onto the landscape.
Multiple spans of time are evoked in Ruisdael’s Landscape, which are similar to (and can be mapped onto) those in Ecclesiastes’s prologue: daily time marked by chatting shepherds (1:3, 5); seasonal time marked by harvest (1:3, 9); transgenerational time evident in the contrast between ruined and inhabited buildings (1:4, 10–11); geological time in the interplay of earth, water, and air (1:5–7). Perhaps even an eschatological time is evoked, one that exists ‘beyond the horizon’, toward and into which the church is called to live (thus projecting us beyond Ecclesiastes, which is almost entirely silent on eschatology). Set within these multiple timeframes, everything in Ruisdael’s painting is seen as graced but transient, glorious yet passing away, forcing the question of how wisely to measure the meanings of human striving (Ecclesiastes 2:3b).
Bergström, Ingvar. 1983. Dutch Still-Life Painting in the Seventeenth Century, trans. by Christina Hedstrom and Gerald Taylor (New York: Hacker Art Books)
Walford, E. John. 1991. Jacob van Ruisdael and the Perception of Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press)
1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
4A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains for ever.
5The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
6The wind blows to the south,
and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
7All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
8All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
9What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already,
in the ages before us.
11There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to happen
among those who come after.
12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.