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Christ Preaching

Harbour with Christ Preaching

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625). Alte Pinakothek – Munich. 1598.

Jan Brueghel the Elder was in many respects an artist that spanned a transition period in Flemish art. He was born in 1568 in Brussels, about ten years earlier than Pieter Paul Rubens, and although he died in 1625, well in the seventeenth century that was mostly Baroque in style, his own style was more linked to his father, to Pieter Bruegel.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted in a very original and individual way, but in many features the Gothic, late Middle Ages shined through his work so that to new viewers it always comes as a surprise that in fact he was a painter of the after-Renaissance. Pieter painted scenes from the lives of the common people that were living a simple but intense life in the Flemish country villages. He painted marriages and funerals; he painted their proverbs and their kermises. He painted genre scenes and so could be called a precursor of the genre style that later Dutch artists would bring to its apogee. Pieter Bruegel’s style came from the observation of the rural life around Brussels, not from the involvement with the urban life of the northern metropolis cities of Antwerp or Amsterdam. Bruegel also emphasised the moral lessons that the later Dutch painters would insist on. But he also painted religious scenes and mythological scenes from classic antiquity. He disguised these stories and depicted them as everyday events form the countryside. In many of his pictures we find very many small figures and we have marvellous landscape drawings from him, also of the Alps Mountains between France and Italy, which Pieter must have visited on his voyage to Italy. He only visited Italy for a short time and although the Habsburg family members bought many of his paintings, he was never a court painter.

Jan Brueghel was Pieter’s second son. He continued the tradition of genre painting in pictures with many small figures in wide landscapes seen from elevated viewpoints. But he also differed from his father in many aspects. Jan Brueghel stayed for longer periods in Italy. In 1590 he was in Naples, from 1592 to 1594 he stayed in Rome. D11 . Then he visited Milan, where he met Cardinal Borromeo. Jan returned to Antwerp in 1596, but he continued to exchange letters with the Milanese Cardinal and helped him to find the Flemish landscape pictures that the Cardinal favoured. Borromeo admired Jan’s smooth art and also possessed many pictures from him. In 1604 Jan Brueghel went to Prague and in 1612 he travelled to Holland with Pieter Paul Rubens and Hendrick van Balen. He had a workshop in Antwerp together with the young, prodigious Anthony van Dyck. Unlike his father Jan became a court painter for the Archduke Albrecht of Austria. Jan was also Dean of the Guild of Painters of Antwerp. He was a man of recognised social standing and a successful, internationally renowned artist. He was more a man of the world and less the fervent, but inner-oriented and innovating painter that was his great father.

In the ‘Harbour Scene with Christ preaching’, dating from 1598, Jan Brueghel painted a scene that reminds well of his father’s ‘John the Baptist preaching’, a painting that he had seen before, and copied the same year. Moreover, this picture of Pieter may as well be a picture of Christ preaching, as the title has been disputed. In Pieter’s scene the figure of the person preaching is hard to find and also in Jan’s painting Jesus is only a small figure in the background. Jan painted the ‘Christ preaching’ from a greater distance so that he could show more of the landscape and he painted from a more elevated viewpoint.

When Pieter Bruegel had bene called the ‘Peasant Bruegel’, his son Jan was part of the international establishment of courtiers and renowned artists. Pieter painted peasants in small villages; Jan painted in his ‘Harbour with Christ preaching’ wealthy burgers of a huge port city, as he knew of Antwerp. Antwerp was at the end of the sixteenth century one of the most industrious ports of Europe, a metropolis and a city that attracted richness from out of the whole of Western Europe. Antwerp had the first stock exchange and although it found growing competition from the Dutch cities, it was a Catholic trading place with more ease of living than in the austere Protestant Holland. So, Jan Brueghel painted a large gathering of well-to-do people that have come with the common people of the town to buy fish at the fish-market, and then also to hear Christ preaching. Jan painted various scenes on the theme of the fish-market, exactly as in his New Testament scene. Although this is a harbour scene, it is hard to recognise Antwerp. The harbour town in the far is imaginary but grand, more resembling an Italian or Dalmatian port with dramatic views of nature. The town is not unlike Venice and more so than the image of a Flemish port of the Low Countries.

The structure of ‘Harbour with Christ preaching’ is simple. Jan Brueghel used the right diagonal to split the panel in two triangles. In the lower left triangle he painted the gathering of the people. He positioned his landscape view in the upper right triangle. We see many figures below, and there is a reference to the multiplication of the loaves and the fish, as fish is deposed and shown here in the fish market. People have come to buy fresh fish and to see the arrival of the fishing boats more than to hear Christ. Jesus can hardly be perceived in the painting. For Jan, like for his father Pieter, the preaching was merely an occasion to show his skills at figure painting, to show his skills in detail of people and of boats, and of course his skills in landscape painting. The landscape unfolds to the far, with the mountains and towers in front. A river ends in the sea, situating the port on a peninsula that dramatically advances into the lake.

Brueghel brought balance in the dark parts of his painting. We see a sombre sky to the right and the dark masses of the long trees to the left. The sun is high, somewhat to the upper left and thus throws a diffuse light on the grouping of people and on the fish market. This then is more important than the scene of Jesus preaching, relegated to the background. Brueghel also used the left diagonal. He painted a figure in white cloak to the lower left, then following this diagonal two ladies in bright, wealthy robes and further on the prominent sail of a ship. In the lower triangle formed under the two diagonals, Jan painted the open space with the fish market. The light is concentrated upon this scene, reminiscent of a miracle of Jesus. Here the brightest colours can be found, mostly warm orange, white and pure blue. The landscape is first a dull blue-green around the beach, then a diluted blue-grey in the skies and in the seas. The mixing of small patches of different pure hues and tones, used nowhere else in the painting but in the crowd of the lower scene, adds very much to the impression of dynamism and variety we receive of the gathering. So we can understand why Cardinal Borromeo of Milan as well as the burghers of Antwerp liked these pictures. There are so many details to discover that one can look for a long time attentively at the picture.

Look at the crowd. Somewhat to the right a fisherwoman sells her fish from a wooden board placed upon the baskets filled with her fish. Hungry Antwerpers have bought fresh oysters, eaten them at the market itself and have thrown the empty shells on the ground. The woman holds her baby and a man – maybe her husband – touches her shoulders so that she turns to look at him. Here is a scene of the moment, a picture of an immediate and rapid act. All the other figures are engaged in such moments. The woman next to the fisherwoman, maybe her mother, bargains hard the selling of an exposed large fish with three men, one of whom is already grasping at the fish, the other one watching and thinking about the price, the third whispering in his ear that the price can still go down some more. Somewhat further stand two stately ladies, keeping their backs well from the selling scene, but still throwing occasional interested glances to the fish market. A group of three merchantmen are arguing in the lower right and the conversation is animated. The middle man, a queer thin man with a long face and a top hat shows the sea with an outstretched hand. Another man makes a defensive, affirming stand by bringing his right hand to his hips and enlarging his profile with the triangle of his elbow and arms. Every figure in the picture is thus painted in a different, lively poise, engaged in some action and Jan painted each suggesting movement.

In the New Testament, Luke tells of such a scene near the Lake of Gennesaret. A crowd gathered around Jesus and pressed too much to hear him. Jesus caught sight of two boats at the edge of the water. The fishermen had gone from the boats to wash their nets. Jesus got into one of the boats, belonging to Simon Peter. He asked Simon to take the boat a little into the lake. Then Jesus sat down and preached to the crowds from out of the boat.

Later still, Jesus ordered the boats out to the lake and the fishermen made a miraculous catch of fish. The boats were loaded to their sinking point. Simon was so surprised and stricken with awe that he fell on his knees before Jesus. Also James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were there. These were Simon’s partners. Simon’s brother Andrew was also with them. These were the first four Apostles. Simon was awe-struck at the miraculous catch but Jesus said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, from now on it will be people you will be catching.’ Simon, James and John brought the boats back to the shore and they followed Jesus. Luke only tells of three Apostles in this story but Matthew and Mark also narrated about Andrew. Matthew and Mark told this happened at the Lake of Galilee.

In the background of Jan Brueghel’s picture ‘Harbour with Christ preaching’, and in a boat near the shore, stands Jesus. He is dressed in white and painted with a halo around his head to distinguish him from the other figures. He blesses the crowd from the bow of the ship and behind him are his first four Apostles. Part of the crowd of the fish market flocks together on the shore to hear Jesus preach, but this is by far not the largest part of the people on the shores of the lake. Still, here and there, as well on land as in the boats, figures look Jesus’ way, are interrogating themselves about who the man is that speaks out on the lake and try to catch his words.

Jan Brueghel painted Jesus on the right diagonal of the frame, but somewhat lower than the intersection of the two diagonals, which would mark the centre of the picture. This could indicate that Brueghel indeed drew one diagonal, the right one, the one going from the lower right to the upper left, and based his structure upon this line.

The landscape scene of Brueghel is quite typical of Flemish landscape painting. The view is wide, and from an elevated point of view. The scene is an imaginary one with a weird rock formation, to which citadels loom, and with stretches of land that go far into the sea. The way land advances thus in the sea reminds vaguely of Venice but no elements of human architecture are indicative of Venice. On the contrary, a Flemish windmill stands prominently on the farthest stretch of land into the lake. But just behind the shored ships slides a typical Venetian gondola. So the landscape is imaginary, with elements taken from many sources and mind-images of Brueghel. Like in many Flemish landscapes and seascapes, the background is painted in vague, mystical, somewhat menacing and alluring hazy colours. This is a gloomy view of morning, at daybreak, when boats and figures are still hulled in half darkness.

Jan Brueghel the Elder made a picture at thirty years that is fully accomplished, as his commissioners liked. He did not paint a peasant scene like his father anymore, but a lively scene of a fish market of a metropolis. This is the fish market of Antwerp, where burghers came to meet, conclude business, flirt, and also buy fresh seafood. ‘Harbour with Christ preaching’ is a picture in which much is to discover, to the delight of Brueghel’s clients. It is a professional but a delightful picture, in which the New Testament scene is but a detail. But this detail must be discovered, like Jesus’ words and life.

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