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The Jordan

The Crossing of the Jordan

Karel van Mander (1548-1606). Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen – Rotterdam.

Joshua, son of Nun, filled with the wisdom of Moses and of Yahweh, led the Israelites across the Jordan.

Joshua struck camp and set out from Shittim. They camped at the Jordan before they crossed. Yahweh ordered the Levite priests to carry the Ark of the Covenant ahead of the Israelites. When the bearers of the Ark reached the waters, the upper waters of the Jordan stood still and formed a single mass so that the column could advance unharmed by the river. The people crossed opposite Jericho G38 .

The picture of the ‘Crossing of the Jordan’ that we show is a painting of Karel van Mander. It is rare painting for very few pictures of this painter remain. Van Mander led a very active life but next to his work as a painter he is also known as one of the few and best Renaissance poets of the Netherlands. Van Mander was Flemish. He was born near Kortrijk in 1548. He learned to paint and he had talents for this art. He went to Italy from around 1574 to 1577. He returned to Flanders but converted from Catholicism to Protestantism so he immigrated to Holland, to the town of Haarlem. In 1604 he published a book there called ‘Het Schilderboeck’, the ‘Book of Paintings’. This was a biography of Flemish and Netherlands painters. Van Mander must have seen Giorgio Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Artists’ in Italy, published in 1550 but of which also a second edition was printed in Florence in 1568, just a few years before van Mander arrived in Tuscany. Vasari’s writings must have still been famous and van Mander, who had also a writer’s instinct, must have found it a good idea to pursue on. Van Mander’s book was for the Netherlands what Vasari’s text was for Italy. On the front page of the book of van Mander he called himself proudly a painter. Van Mander however was even more an author than a painter. He wrote poems and he translated Virgil, Homer and Ovid in Dutch. He published several collections of poems. His fame has grown as a theorist of the art of painting of the Netherlands. Art historians often go back to his text when they need to learn more about the lives of the Dutch artists.

Karel van Mander had been to Italy in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. That was the period of Mannerism in Florence and Rome. Van Mander’s tastes went to this style. In 1604, after the publication of his ‘Schildersboeck’ in Haarlem, van Mander went to live in Amsterdam. His picture ‘The Crossing of the Jordan’ dates from this period, from 1605. He lived in wealthy Amsterdam and died a short while later, in 1606.

Van Mander’s work ‘The Crossing of the Jordan’ shows the Israelite tribes travelling in a long column to Canaan. The river has been crossed, now the march is on to the Promised Land. The procession starts on the left and the Israelites advance to the right. On the extreme left we find the Ark of the Covenant. It is carried by two priests, two Levites, who are sumptuously dressed. Joshua strides just before the ark. The stone tablets of the Law are worn in front of the Ark and then a long, flowing line of Israelites advances and disappears into the right far background. They march into the brightly-lit plains of Canaan, to Jericho. The Israelites advance with their flags to confront the Canaanites. There will be a battle soon.

In this scene of the advancing column of Israelites, van Mander painted tens of figures in various attitudes. The men are advancing. They work. They carry loads, and they lead the crossing in full action. They walk first into the dark, and then back into the light of the Promised Land. Van Mander used the diagonal of the frame to hold the long procession of people, and the column winds in curves around this line to give an impression of the very length of the advancing tribes. Van Mander used the diagonal because it is the longest line in a picture and maybe he had already understood also that a painter has to use oblique lines to indicate movement. This allowed van Mander to impress his viewers by the epic movement of the thousands of people advancing in a grand scene of nature. Contrary to many other painters, van Mander did not use the open ‘V’ structure to show the background. Since his troops are marching to the upper right, he could show mount Nebo in the centre and then unfold landscapes of Canaan to the right and left.

In the lower right part of the picture van Mander showed an assembly of obviously wealthy people. These are standing next to their bags. They turn their backs to the advancing column. Van Mander may just have painted this one small scene to fill up one lower triangle of his picture and show his skills in painting beautiful people and sumptuous dresses, a way of comparing his skills with other painters of details. In the Book of Joshua, it is told that Yahweh ordered the fighting men to cross but the wives and the cattle had to stay behind beyond the Jordan. But another interpretation could be that he meant here a moral message. The wealthy people have just crossed the Jordan, but now they rest and wait. They turn their backs to the column that is marching energetically and that is hard at work to enter God’s land. Van Mander may have meant here to moralise on the wealthy burghers of Amsterdam, saying that they wait and refuse to leave behind their riches to follow the design of God.

We have only few pictures left of van Mander and that is a pity. For van Mander shows obvious painterly qualities. His picture is made in splendid, harmonious colours. He had clearly a good feeling for colours and the fine combination of figures and landscape brings him in the best tradition of the northern landscape painters, of which Brabant and Holland were so rich. Van Mander liked landscapes and he depicted nature in ‘The Crossing of the Jordan’ with obvious relish, love and skill. Remark for instance how nicely he let the light play in the foliage of the bushes in the centre.

Van Mander combined various painterly styles in the same picture. In certain places he painted detail minutely, in other places he applied a broader, more nervous brushstroke. We know this style in particular of Rembrandt, who worked also in Amsterdam. Van Mander also marvellously masters light and dark and he used the contrasts quite earlier than Caravaggio did, though not of course with the force of this Roman artist. The horizontal middle part of the painting is hidden in a belt of dark colours, whereas light is in the lower and upper parts. Van Mander had no difficulty with the drawing of figures. The lady with the white cloak in the right corner, almost in the lower middle, is well drawn and shown elegantly.

Karel van Mander was a poet, a writer of a now famous biography of Dutch painters and a he was a fine painter. He was truly an all-round Renaissance man, a humanist who preferred freedom of thought in Protestantism to any dogma of Catholicism. Yet, he also saw some narrow-mindedness in Amsterdam. In his picture of 1605 he tells we need to advance together as free people to the Promised Land. Salvation is in the journey and one does not stand on the side waiting haughtily for someone to take up one’s burdens. Join the column, he says, and advance, as the long history of Christianity does.


We started our series of paintings from the Old Testament, from Genesis, with pictures of landscapes of Eden. Karel Van Mander links with the northern tradition of landscape painting so that we can rightly close our series of pictures from the Pentateuch with a grand landscape. We started with open, wide landscapes of the Paradise, in which man was small. We close with a landscape that is as grand, in which man is still small, but they are many and they have shaped the land. The Pentateuch is a long and epic narrative of grand characters. But the land, the views that are described, the link with the land that we constantly feel in the writers of the texts, are all-important and remain the linking thread. Israel had finally reached Canaan to stay and make this land theirs.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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