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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Scaling Time

Commentary by

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).

 

References

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)


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