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The Prodigal Son

* Joachim Patinir, Landscape with St. Jerome (1515-1519)

(Joachim Patinir was perhaps one of the pioneers in Western art who made landscape the main spectacle of his paintings. Unable to eschew wilfully from the tradition, the themes of Patinir’s paintings are still predicated on biblical narratives. Yet the lionized deities are mostly dwarfed by the grandiosity of the landscapes, which are often divided by several rock formations. The rocks look sharp and precipitous which makes the painting an unnerving sight. The mood of Patinir’s landscape painting resides more on the predicaments of the Middle Ages than the chequered, gilded wonder of the Renaissance the painter was born to. That explains why I have always seen Patinir’s painting as an indirect memento mori.)

Cleanliness and clarity dominate the wintery tone of the village. The stillness of the air makes the time seemingly trapped in a hapless warp. In addition to the stasis is the absence of snow which heralds no festive felicity to this remote land. Christmas is just around the corner and the children have already given up wishing unavailingly for a spell of flake magic. Together with the po-faced adults they stare out of the windows to the stretching roads, which are devoid of any substance to be made an interesting spectacle saving a long-standing rock formation. Part of the scenery is therefore blocked by the rock, while the keen eyes of the children fixate on its looming presence, as if anticipating something astounding swinging out of the shadowy corners.

And the children’s wishes are not put in disdain. Out from the darkest silhouette cast by the sharpest facet comes a lone traveller, trudging laboriously with back laden with burdens. The adults confirm their unfamiliarity with the approaching stranger. The children are in the nascence of their fluster, sniffing in the air the anomalous coming by. At a certain distance the traveller appears to be a prey to the formidable nature, as the former is almost subsumed by the grand scenery, mainly the rock. Nothing can be more threatening to the villagers than the dwarfed stranger, which mobility is a scourge reminding their own incarcerated lives.

The traveller should feel their malice in return when his exhaustion triggers no concerns or hospitality from the villagers. Yet no astonishments are expressive, either. The children, who can be described as wide-eyed, stare at the man as if lending their numerous transparent eyes to mirror up his fatigue. There are even more obstacles in extorting her whereabouts. Nevertheless the jaded traveller asks for water and victuals, and thankfully the villagers are not too unwilling to provide some.

Before long the night descends. The only time he can dredge up those memories without fearing the intrusion of others. The images come before his eyes in snippets, partly owing to those reminiscences which are now in a train of wild rhythms. Even in privacy, words are too honest and daunting a means for piecing together his past years. Instead, he only permits his mind to dwell on the consequences. A motivated youth in his heydays; a series of trifling affairs to while away the sweltering and stifling days, which result in an entanglement of a heart too susceptible and tender. All amounts eventually to a fractured heart and his adamant insistence on leaving the village he is ever fond of. No tears are shed from either side’s farewell.

It is in doubt whether the villagers all recognize there resides tonight the prodigal son they were wont to gossiping about. The children, in particular, relate not this enigmatic intruder to the one they romanticize much after their bed time stories. Yet their curiosities are always piqued when among them inhabits an unwelcome stranger. No sooner do the adventurous children decide to rouse the stranger, and out of filial duty to their responsible parents exclude him from the village. A plan is set that they will venture into the barn (the place where the man is assigned to spend his night) and with no pain inflict on the stranger they will wheedle him into immortality. One by one the children tiptoe out to accomplish their task.

The remembrance of the past makes his eyes grow heavy. The scene before him is now only dimly visible. He snuggles up a bundle of his worn clothes for comfort, yet warmth is not something that comes immediately. Winter. Long days of winter are by no means unbearable when in his vagabond years are riddled with days of biting frostiness. How he longs for one single prick that generates surges of heat flowing through his livid veins, and makes himself whole again; the renewal of one that was once so loved by everyone. He dozes while greedily toying with this beautiful thought, and is not aware of the coming of the rustling noise that can be broken down into hundreds of them, in which the stranger hazards unalarmingly as the nocturnal activity of mice.

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