Friday, May 22, 2020

Onuphrius in the wilderness

Master of the Darmstadt Passion, Saint Onuphrius, 1460

You could write a whole book about landscapes in depictions of the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers (and I would read it).  A chapter on Saint Onuphrius would certainly include this painting, which I photographed three years ago in Zurich.  The desert here resembles a summer lawn and the little stream seems to provide just enough water to irrigate a few herbs.  Also in Switzerland, the Kunstmuseum Basel has an austere landscape from 1519 in which Onuphrius prays among bare red rocks and broken tree trunks. It was painted by a local artist, Conrad Schnitt.  Sadly there is no image freely available online - all I could find was one overwritten throughout with 'Alamy' to prevent copying.  I'm therefore only able to provide a tiny detail below, showing a distant building that I'm guessing is the monastery Onuphrius lived in before he headed into the desert.  In the Zurich painting there is a similarly-placed structure, which looks like a beautiful medieval castle standing out against the golden sky.

We only really know about Onuphrius from an account of Paphnutius the Ascetic, a fourth century Egyptian anchorite.  Paphnutius ventured into the desert to see what it would be like to be a hermit and there he saw a wild man covered in hair, wearing only leaves.  This was Onuphrius, who said he had survived as a hermit out there for seventy years.  They spoke until sunset and spent the night in prayer.  In the morning Onuphrius died and Paphnutous covered his body with a cloak and left it in a cleft in the rocks because the ground was too hard to bury him. 

Cornelis Cort, Saint Onuphrius, 1574
You would think such an inhospitable place would always appear as a bleak-looking landscape in art.  But this isn't always the case, as can be seen in Cornelis Cort's print.  Here there are trees in full leaf and plentiful water in a wonderfully well-drawn river.  I have reproduced another print below by Albrecht Dürer.  It shows John the Baptist with a saint once thought to have been Saint Jerome, but as the National Gallery curators write, there is no lion to be seen and 'instead, the garland of hops points towards Saint Onuphrius.'  They note that 'the relatively densely worked areas in the centre of the print contrast with almost rudimental landscape in the background.'  However, for me, the distant vista is beautiful rather than 'rudimental', with its sense of space and light, and that sea fringed with trees and dotted with two small boats beneath waves of cloud... 

Albrecht Dürer, John the Baptist and Saint Onuphrius in the Wilderness, c. 1503-4

I won't try your patience here by describing lots more images of Onuphrius in the history of art.  There have been many icons in which his standing figure is placed in front of his cell, between hills or on a rocky plain.  Artists whose views of the saint are set in interesting wilderness landscapes include Lorenzo Monaco (c. 1370-1425), Francesco Morone (1471-1529), Jan van Haelbeck (1595-1635), Francisco Collantes (1599-1656) and Salvator Rosa (1615-1673).  I will conclude with just one more: a painting orginally made for the Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid.  The artist responsible for the figure of Onuphrius is not known but the painter of the landscape is unmistakable.  The life of a hermit in this sublime landscape looks almost inviting.

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Saint Onuphrius, c. 1638
Source: Prado

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