Well, it’s not all bad! After yesterday’s lowering clouds, the bright blue sky couldn’t be more welcome. The sun is shining, casting shadows on the pale green grass – although I’m not entirely convinced they are being cast in the right direction, given that, judging by the light on the different facets of the buildings, the light should be coming from the left. Having said that, on closer inspection, the lines of shadow are modelling the undulation of the hillside. The leaves of the tree are pale green – so it could be spring, or early summer. But beware, flowers can appear at any time in a painting, and so can leaves. As we are potentially dealing with the illustration of a text in which several people come back from the dead, new life would be valued in all its forms, and could be symbolic rather than naturalistic. And while we’re looking at it, you can see from the horizontal fluctuations in intensity running through the branches and leaves, that the tree was painted on top of the broader brushstrokes of the sky.
We’re not in the countryside, as the three previous details might have suggested. There are some elements, at least, of the built environment, solidly painted, and showing clear signs of perspective, although whether this is a rigidly determined single vanishing point perspective, or something approximated by eye, would probably be impossible to determine from the fragmentary evidence here. Nevertheless, this is some form of linear perspective, describing the way in which objects get smaller the further away they get, and parallel lines, leading away from the picture plane, converge. Even if the artist did use single vanishing point perspectives, a single system wouldn’t apply to the two buildings which are just visible, because they are not lined up. The front face of the one on the right doesn’t appear to be parallel to the picture plane, although the one on the left, from the sliver we can see, does. So the orthogonals of the two buildings – the lines leading into the distance, which, in a ‘classic’ perspectival scheme, would be at right-angles to the picture plane – would recede to different points.
In addition to linear perspective, the painter also knows about aerial, or atmospheric perspective: the effect that the air, or atmosphere, has on the way we see things in the distance. They look paler, and slightly less distinct, as if the air itself, or any dust or mist in the air, were getting in the way. As well as being paler, and less distinct, the distant hills also look blue, almost as if the very sky has got in the way. It helps that, for most people, the colour blue tends to recede visually, so blue can, in itself, look more distant. Atmospheric perspective was known to the Romans, but none of the relevant murals had been discovered in time for the artists of the Early Renaissance to learn from them: they saw it themselves, looking at the world around them. Its first use is usually credited to Masaccio, painting in the Brancacci Chapel in the 1420s. However, in his relief of St George and the Dragon, carved almost a decade earlier, Donatello clearly shows his understanding of the phenomenon in the wispy depiction of the trees that appear as if sketched onto the marble in the background. And then, of course, van Eyck would employ it to magnificent effect, and with far greater refinement than Masaccio, in The Adoration of the Sacred Lamb from The Ghent Altarpiece, completed in 1432. I’m going to include a detail of it from one of my favourite websites, Closer to Van Eyck, simply because I can. Our painting can only have been completed after this.