Having written a book that covers, in broad brushstrokes, some five centuries of Spanish and Australian cultural history, the choice of an image for the cover might have been daunting: there are simply so many possibilities to choose from. In the case of The Beautiful Obscure, however, the choice was clear and immediate: Joachim Patinir’s Charon crossing the Styx is not only one of the shimmering gems of the Prado Museum, but also a painting that has, for three decades, been one of those images that strikes me as expressing a fundamental truth: that while we move largely ‘naked and alone’ through life, we are nevertheless guided in ways we do not always see or understand.
Joachim Patinir was a Flemish painter, born in the late medieval period (around 1480) and thus forms part of a prodigious school extending from Roger van der Weyden, Dirk Bouts, Hans Memling and Hieronymus Bosch, via Patinir, all the way to later luminaries such as Quentin Massys, Pieter Bruegel and Antonio Moro, and thence continuing on to Rubens and van Dyck. Most significantly, Patinir is considered one of the first great landscape painters in the western canon, using rocky outcrops, wild forests, distant mountains, crags, rivers and assorted obstacles not as decorative backdrop but as metaphors for the human struggle.
Patinir was an artist who left little trace: either he produced only a small volume of work, or much of his work has been lost. Precious few of his canvases remain – perhaps less than 20 wholly attributed, with another 20 or 30 attributed to Patinir and his workshop, or in collaboration with others. Yet even if we assume the former – that he was not an especially prolific painter – he nevertheless did bring off Charon crossing the Styx, a singularly glorious masterpiece that casts an eerie green-blue glow into the Prado Museum galleries. It is the work of an artist not only at the peak of his powers, but almost at the end of his life. In an age where youth is prioritised and celebrated so strenuously, it is comforting to see the technical and spiritual depths achieved by masters at the end of their road (one thinks of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov as another, much later, example of this late fecundity).
King Philip II, the first Spanish monarch to rule over a truly global empire (he reigned from 1556 – 1598), was also perhaps its most intensely Catholic monarch. He was deeply attracted by the religious morality tales of artists such as Bosch, Patinir and Bruegel. At this time the Spanish empire included the Low Countries, and long before Spanish monarchs brought legions of Italian painters to court, they were inspired by the brilliant artistry of the northern Flemish school. So it is that today the Prado Museum hosts one of the most spectacular collections of Flemish painting in the world: these are, essentially, fruits of empire, and track the currents of religious influence and instruction across the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
In any great art museum, standouts jostle for attention. Yet over the decades, no work at the Prado Museum has been so thrilling and mysterious for me as Patinir’s Charon crossing the Styx. It is an unparalleled examination of the division between Heaven and Hell, running from the shiny white horizon, blue lagoons, green pastures and strolling angels of the Elysian Fields, across the river of the damned, past three-headed Cerberus to the blazing fires and penstroke gallows of the underworld. Patinir’s work has always struck me as utterly complete – technically, compositionally, philosophically and spiritually. By pure chance the artwork survived four centuries of vicissitude and reached us mostly intact; with its brooding luminescence and tightly controlled narrative landscape developed over three vertical bands of colour, this one small painting describes an entire period of the European mind and heart.
Oddly, Patinir was often left to sit alone on the walls of the museum. For many years, Charon crossing the Styx shared the same room as the barbarous spectacle of Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights and The Haywain, while directly opposite hung Bruegel’s Triumph of Death. It is hard to think of a gallery room anywhere in the world quite so overcrowded with spectacular discourse on the journey of the human soul. The contrast was extraordinary: crowds flocked around the Bosch, all famous clamour, luxury and moral condemnation; the other, on an adjacent wall, a bluish serenity. Albeit both treat the worldly division between Heaven and Hell, one is a legendary extravaganza, the other a darkly glowing contemplation. Patinir lost out with the public every time.
The detail of Charon crossing the Styx that has been used here shows only the boatman and his passenger; there is no indication of where they might be headed, or from where they might have come. The complete picture tells a fuller story: Charon is oaring his way across the Styx towards the gates of Hell, back turned – as is the back of his passenger – on the shiny uplands of Paradise. In choosing this particular crop for the cover of The Beautiful Obscure, I preferred to have the overtly didactic religious element stripped away, while converting Charon into a figure of guidance and protection. The naked soul sails on under his wing. In this respect, the image retains the strong suggestion that we are all guided by greater and wiser forces than ourselves in crossing turbulent waters.