A curious process began to afflict religious painting during the fifteenth century: their Biblical subjects began to atrophy and shrink even as the natural settings through which they moved grew larger. In the sixteenth century they would shrivel away entirely, leaving behind a world of tilled fields, distant mountains, and the proud parapeted skylines of towns. So was born landscape painting. And so I was taught, and over the years have taught my own students.

One can see why the notion of the religious origin of landscape painting should be so durable. Stories that explain the origin of things fulfill a psychological need and, even when palpably absurd, they are immortal, destructible only by a more satisfying story. And the traditional account of landscape painting is peculiarly satisfying. The absence of landscape painting during the Middle Ages expressed the indifference of the era to the pleasures of this world, while its emergence...


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