Jan Gossaert, Saint Jerome Penitent, ca. 1510
The panels above showing Saint Jerome in the wilderness have clearly left the idea of painted sculpture behind - but for the grisaille they are fairly traditional depiction of the story (showing two earlier episodes in the saint's life in the background). In other media, frescoes and illuminated manuscripts were also being produced at this time in monochrome or with deliberately reduced palettes, emphasising form over colour. But looking at this painting on a grisaille winter's day last week, in the National Gallery's new exhibition Jan Gossaert's Renaissance, I was still struck by the scene's uncanny resemblance to a world turned to stone. Perhaps it is because Saint Jerome himself is holding a rock, as he kneels in the rocky landscape with a great stone city in the background, whilst on the other panel, the statue-like figure of Christ is set on a petrified tree beneath an ash-coloured sky.
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights outer wings, c1490-1510
Possibly the best known grisaille outer panels from this period are those of Hieronymus Bosch and those for The Garden of Earthly Delights show the earth as it was on the third day of creation. This is a world before colour, where land is only just emerging from the misty sea under dark rain clouds, and newly formed trees are seen alongside other stranger growths, half-vegetable, half-mineral. Italo Calvino's story 'Without Colours', in Cosmicomics, describes the the beauty of the grey earth before an atmosphere has formed to filter the light of the sun. Here 'trees of smoke-colored lava stretched out twisted branches from which hung thin leaves of slate. Butterflies of ash flying over clay meadows hovered above opaque crystal daises...' Calvino's hero Qfwfq, who yearns for contrast, colour and sound, falls in love with the beautiful Ayl, 'a happy inhabitant of the silence that reigns where all vibration is excluded'. When the world begins to change Ayl takes fright at the disruption to her beloved neutral landscape and they are parted. As Qfwfq looks sadly out on the 'canary-yellow fields which striped the tawny hills sloping down to a sea full of azure glints, all seemed so trivial...' He realises Ayl could never have been happy here among 'those gilded and silvered gleams, those little clouds that turned from blue to pink, those green leaves that yellowed every autumn, and that Ayl's perfect world was lost forever.'
The Brothers Quay, cover for Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics,
a photographic collage grisaille landscape.