A Remarkable Painting About Journeying to the Afterlife

The boat ride between Patinir’s paradise and underworld

Christopher P Jones
5 min readJan 16, 2024

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Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx (c. 1515–1524) by Joachim Patinir. Oil on panel. 64 × 103 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Let me introduce you to a wonderful term in art history: Weltlandschaft.

It’s a German word meaning “world landscape” and refers to paintings that present imaginary panoramas made up of grand topographical features like mountains, rivers, valleys, forests and buildings.

The painting shown above, by the Netherlandish artist Joachim Patinir, is a fine example of a Weltlandschaft.

In fact, the Flemish painter was a pioneer of the world landscape form. Working in the first decades of the 1500s, his paintings seem to lay out the whole Earth before us — whilst often offering a fictive realm where fantastical architecture are just as likely to spring up alongside towns and farmland.

Meanwhile any figures, either earthly or fabled, are dwarfed by the expansive surroundings.

In an age when Flemish cartographers like Gerardus Mercator and Abraham Ortelius were making the first modern maps — and kick-starting the Golden Age of Dutch cartography — Weltlandschaft paintings emerged as an artistic counterpart.

They are interesting not only for their high vantage point, but also because they reveal a new-found fascination with the diversity of the world, where the real and the mythical, Biblical and classical, merge into one seamless landscape.

Let’s take a look around this painting…

The Soul’s Journey

Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx (c. 1515–1524) by Joachim Patinir. Oil on panel. 64 × 103 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Image source Wikimedia Commons

In Patinir’s image, we enjoy an elevated viewpoint over a broad Weltlandschaft. From the sheen of the waterway to the lush-leaved trees, the landscape is striped with bands of light and shadow, a technique used by the artist to highlight key areas of the narrative.

The scene is split into three clear sections, composed of mythical and divine elements. On the left is the “heavenly” realm, evidently verdant and peaceful, replete with roaming animals and angels, whilst on the right is the shadowy realm of Hades (Greek god of the…

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