Fables in the Flemish Landscape. Bosch, Bles, Brueghel, Bril

Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts, from 6 October 2012 to 14 January 2013.

1. Joachim Patinir (c. 1480-1524)
Landscape with the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, c. 1515-1520
Oil on Panel - 22.5 x 30 cm
Rotterdam, Musée Boijmans - Van Beuningen
Photo : Musée Boijmans

Images are "made to mean something different from what we see with our eyes", asserted Cesare Ripa [1]. The Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille makes a brilliant demonstration of this axiom in an iconological exhibition highlighting the "fables in the Flemish landscape" in the 16th century. The fable - from the verb "fari", talk - designates a "fictional narrative exemplifying a moral sens", essentially drawn from the Bible [2] or mythology.
We find it revealing that the title of many of the paintings exhibited in Lille begin with the expression "Landscape with..." followed by the actual subject, taken from the life of Christ, the Old Testament or the lives of the saints : indeed at this time, landscapes come into their own right as opposed to the story itself in which the actors become small figures relegated to a corner of the composition (ill. 1). However, although nature takes center stage, the artist’s approach is not purely aesthetic ; the landscape becomes a metaphor and is organized in a symbolic manner, as explained by Michel Weemans : "the painting no longer contents itself with illustrating a narrative (of the saints or from the Bible), but gives it a visual interpretation" [3].

2. Henri Bles (c. 1500 - 1560)
Lanscape with Saint Christopher, c. 1535-1545
Oil on Panel - 30 x 42 cm
Rotterdam, Musée Boijmans - Van Beuningen
Photo : Musée Boijmans

This pictorial tendency is tied to the development of the Devotio moderna, a spiritual movement born in the Netherlands at the end of the 14th century emphasizing personal prayer, introspection, in brief an interior form of piety for which painters supply a support to meditate. Exegesis is at a turning point, Erasmus insisting on the wealth and multiplicity of meaning of Scripture, of divine inspiration which can be grasped at different levels of interpretation left us by the Middle Ages : the historical or literal sense, the allegorical sense, the tropological or moral sense and the anagogical sense. Nature also is seen as a book, written by the hand of God, which attains its perfection in its variety : a varietas with which humanists rival through their rhetorical work and their diversified forms of speech. Alain Tapié, in his essay "Erasme, peintre malgré lui" [Erasmus, a painter despite himself], shows how "the visual production of sense as practiced by Erasmus" is fully deployed in Flemish painting, which provides a link between the two books at the service of Revelation : Scripture and Nature. Artists conceive "landscapes of the world", an expression coined in the early 20th century by Eberhard Von Bodenhausen [4] to define these paintings which encompass mountains, the sea, forests and cities in only one image, creating a microcosm, a reflection of infinite greatness.

3. Henri Bles (vers 1500-1560)
Landscape with Saint Jerome,
second third of the XVIth century
Oil on Panel - 75.7 X 105.8 cm
Namur, Musée provincial des arts anciens du Namurois
Photo : Musée de Namur

The Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille presents a visit which is both chronological and thematic. Works range from the late 15th century with The Ascension of the Chosen and The Fall of the Damned by Dirk Bouts (after 1468) which serve as an introduction, until the early 17th with Velvet Brueghel (ill. 9) with notably three oils on copper from the Palazzo Colonna. The staging, in the form of a labyrinth inspired by Androuet du Cerceau, differentiates the "fantastic world" from the "marvellous world" and places, in between the two, the "way of life". These various concepts are analyzed in the catalogue with some remarkable essays which look at 16th century Flemish painting from the viewpoint of art history and iconology but also philosophy, theology and literature while presenting detailed entries for all the works. However, the catalogue has one (serious) drawback which is a lack of an index and unfortunately also needs a clearer numbering of the pages.

"Enter ye in by the narrow gate ; for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many are they that enter in thereby. For narrow is the gate and straitened the way that leadeth unto life, and few are they that find it." [5]. The metaphor of the way is omnipresent in the Christian religion ; the Way of the Cross is of course the most edifying, Christ himself is "the Way, the Truth and the Life" [6] but we find this idea in the story of the pilgrims to Emmaus as well or that of Saint Christopher struggling to ford the river with the child Jesus on his shoulders and the weight of the world in his hands. However, the landscape is a means to illustrate these various journeys, itself becoming a source of "spiritual pilgrimage" as noted by Cardinal Federico Borromeo [7]. The painting takes the person contemplating it on a visual and mental voyage ; it becomes an interior vision, showing the invisible and the ineffable.

4. Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625)
Aeneas Being Led to Hell by
the Cumaean Sibyl
, c. 1604
Oil on Copper - 25.7 x 35.3 cm
Roma, Palazzo Colonna
Photo : Palazzo Colonna

The Landscape with Saint Jerome in Penance by Herri Met de Bles (also known as Henri Bles) (ill. 3) provides a fine example. Jerome, a model of ascesis and of imitatio Christi, is praying under a rock in the shape of an arch ; in the distance, a twisting path goes up toward the steep mountains, symbolizing the spiritual elevation leading to the Visio Dei. On the right, we see a lush image of nature while in the left foreground, animals are drinking at a fountain, amid an arid landscape which reflects man dispossessed by original sin and saved by Christ, the fountain of life for lost mankind. "As the deer pants for the water brooks, So pants my soul for You, O God" exclaims Psalm 42. Further on, a Crucifixion given to Patinir’s circle relegates Jesus to a middle distance and focuses on Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus climbing a sinuous path to the top of Golgotha. Saint Christopher also appears in many paintings, for instance by Henri Bles and Patinir, as well as by Jan Wellensz de Cock.

5. Henri Bles (c. 1500 - 1560)
Coastal Landscape with Saint Augustine
Oil on Panel - 21.5 x 30.6 cm
Roma, Palazzo Colonna
Photo : Palazzo Colonna

The section "Sacred Fables, Profane Fables" reminds us that Flemish landscapes interpret Christian thought without forgetting their connection to the humanist culture of the time. Alain Rey explains it clearly : "the Flemish painters set out on this search for nature - including human nature - redesigned by the combined virtue of Christian faith and of the rediscovery of Antique myths" [8]. Thus Christ in Limbo finds itself alongside Aeneas Led to Hell by the Cumaean Sibyl (ill. 4), two paintings by Jan Brueghel the Elder. Another loan from the Palazzo Colonna, a Coastal Landscape with Saint Augustine (ill. 5) is an unpublished painting attributed to Herri Met de Bles. It illustrates the theme of Saint Augustine meditating on the beach and observing a child taking water from the sea with a shell then pouring it into a hole in the sand, determined to empty out the entire ocean ; when the Bishop of Hippo points out to him the futility of his effort, the child answers by saying that it is just as fruitless to search for an explanation of the mystery of the Holy Trinity. The attribution of the painting, based on the presence of a small owl, a recurring motif of the artist, is underscored by comparing it to some of his other paintings such as Landscape with Saint John the Baptist from Cleveland or Landscape with Saint Jerome and the Lion from the Galleria Borghese. The sea, whether biblical or mythological, also personifies divine power and man’s weakness, it swallows Jonas, claims Icarus as attested by the painting here by Paul Bril and the one after Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

6. Follower of Jerome Bosch (c. 1450-1516)
Paradise, c. 1539
Oil on Panel - 24.5 x 19. 5 cm
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
Photo :Kunsthistorisches Museum

7. Pieter Huys (c. 1519-1581)
The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Oil on Panel - 70 x 101 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMNGP/Gérard Blot

The exhibiton continues with "the fantastic world, the devil’s share and disparate places", but also dissonant. The star of this section is of course Jerome Bosch (and his followers) (ill. 6) and the subject best suited to the hubbub of frightening figures, the depictions of human folly and interventions of the devil is obviously the temptation of Saint Anthony amply represented by Jan Mandyn, Pieter Huys (ill. 7) and Jan Wellensz de Cock. We enter the world of the bizarre and misleading appearances, of anamorphoses and anthropomorphic landscapes, of Hell and its punishments. But, as Reindert L. Falkenburg points out [9], all of these demons, these monsters and these hybrid figures are not supposed to offer up a "recreational terror" to the viewer.

8. Jérôme Bosch (c. 1450-1516)
Saint John the Baptist, c. 1488-1489
Oil on Panel - 49 x 40 cm
Madrid, Museo Làzaro-Galdiano
Photo : Museo Làzaro-Galdiano

They incarnate rather the "region of disparity", a concept formulated by Saint Augustine to suggest that Man, created in the image of God, has distanced himself from Him after the Fall ; this region is both a geographical place, the earth, and a spiritual state, in which humanity has plunged into sin. The themes of the Tower of Babel, of Sodom and Gomorrah or of Lot and his daughters evoke this lost way. A major work, Saint John the Baptist by Jerome Bosch (ill. 8) presents a surprisingly calm scene. The saint, his eyes closed, is lying next to a strange and beautiful plant ; this intertwined couple expresses the opposition between misleading appearances and the interior, spiritual vision of the saint who is pointing his finger toward the lamb, that is, Christ, whose sacrifice will bring the Redemption of man and allow him to recover his resemblance to God.

The exhibition ends with "The marvelous, from the variety of the world to sacred cosmology" which Daniel Couty [10] distinguishes from the fantastic through literature.
After 1550, a more serene universe is offered up to the viewer who accepts the strangeness. After the dissonance, comes harmony. Painters do not so much denounce evil as show rather the variety of divine creation. They profess humanist wisdom, propose a less enigmatic more poetic world, in which the vision is transformed into a cosmological view with atmospheric effects drawing the eye all the way to infinity.

9. Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625)
Oil on Panel - 46 x 83 cm
Lyon, Musée des Beaux Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

The concepts of variety and abundance, as we have seen, are related to the perfection of nature in which each element is unique and resembles no other. The paintings by Brueghel the Elder are a marvelous expression of this copia varietas or "copious diversity" as Ronsard expressed it ; the series of four elements notably, unfolds everything inhabiting or produced by earth, air, and water (ill. 9), with fire being an exception since it belongs to Vulcan’s universe and can be used to produce arms or metalic utensils more so than creatures. We find here Saints Jerome, Anthony and Christopher in vast panoramic landscapes interspersed with realistic details but also abounding in sharply contoured mountains which the spirit must incessantly attempt to climb. In a more laconic vein than Ripa, Leonardo da Vinci as well asserted that painting is "a mental thing".

Curator : Alain Tapié

Collective work, Fables du paysage flamand. Bosch, Brueghel, Bles, Bril, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille/Somogy editions d’Art, 2012, 376 p., 35€. ISBN : 9782757205822.

Visitor information : Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, place de la République, 59000 Lille. Tel : +33 (0)3 20 06 78 00. Admission : 6.50€ (reduced : 5€). Open Monday from 2 pm to 6 pm, Wednesday to Friday from 10 am to 6 pm, Saturday and Sunday from 10 am to 7 pm.

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, dimanche 18 novembre 2012


[1] Cesare Ripa, Iconologia, 1593, exhibition catalogue.

[2] Christians might in fact contest the formula "fictional narrative" designating Bible passages.

[3] Exhibition catalogue, p. 79. Michel Weemans, "Le paysage monde comme pérégrination spirituelle et exégèse spirituelle.", pp. 77-83.

[4] "Weltlandschaft" or "landscape of the world". Eberhard von Bodenhausen first used this concept in a monograph on Gérard David, 1905.

[5] The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, 7 ; 13-14.

[6] The Gospel according to Saint John, 14 ; 6.

[7] Federico Borromeo, Pro suis studiis, 1628. Exhibition catalogue, p. 77.

[8] Exhibition catalogue, p. 23. Alain Rey, "Le Pays des fables", pp. 23-25.

[9] Exhibition catalogue, p. 57. Reindert Leonard Falkenburg, "Régions de dissemblance", pp. 57-63.

[10] Exhibition catalogue, Daniel Couty, "Poétique comparée du fantastique et du merveilleux en littérature et en peinture. Les Saint Antoine de Flaubert et de Jérôme Bosch", pp. 27-33. We should remember that Daniel Couty is also a collaborator at The Art Tribune.

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