Solnit goes on to describe the blue distances of Renaissance paintings - the hills in Solario's Crucifixion (1503), for instance, or in the right hand panel of Memling's Resurrection (c1490). I was gazing into one such painting by Jacopo del Sellaio last Saturday at the National Gallery of Scotland when my reverie was broken by the announcement that the room was closing for an hour, due to staff shortages. (I just found the painting online - reproduced below - but failed to note down any information on it as I was hurried out of the gallery, and there is no information on the website). I felt like offering to sit in for the attendant so as to look undisturbed at the painting while he had his lunch, but I could see that in the National Gallery of Scotland all male staff must wear tartan trousers.
Jacopo del Sellaio, St Jerome in the Wilderness
with Saints John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene
In Sellaio's painting the eye follows a succession of mountains set further and further into the distance where sky and sea merge. These mountains resemble waves of rock, emanating from beyond the horizon. They look as if they could form an infinite series - every time you reached one, another peak would be visible further on and, as Rebecca Solnit says, you could never actually reach that blue at the world's edge.
To stare out to sea may be to overlook what is happening in the foreground, and here there is a stark reminder of this in the crucified Christ. And yet this figure, which entirely fills St Jerome's attention, exists only in his mind's eye... There is much to look at in Sellaio's figures of the Saints, their rocky backdrops in three contrasting types of stone, the curiously transparent stream flowing around their feet, and the stylised, perfectly shaped trees behind them. But in the end my eye gets drawn back to that mountain range, receding into the distant blue.