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The Garden of Eden

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625). Ca. 1620. The Victoria and Albert Museum – London.

At the time when God made heaven and earth, no wild bush nor wild plant had sprung for God had not yet sent rain or any man to till the soil. Water flowed out of the ground and from there watered the surface. Then God shaped man from the soil and blew the breath of live into him G38 .

God planted a garden in Eden, in the East, and there he put the man he had fashioned. God caused to grow every kind of tree, beautiful and good to eat, and in the middle of the garden he grew the tree of knowledge of good and evil. A river flowed from Eden to water the garden and that river divided to make four streams called the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Thus tells the story of the creation of the Garden of Eden, the story of the creation of all the animals and of man and woman. Every race seems to have origin stories and these are ours. No painter has brought these images better on the canvas than Jan Brueghel the Elder, an artist born in Brabant Brussels, who lived around the change of the sixteenth into the seventeenth century. Jan Brueghel was a northern landscape and flower painter. He formed the transition between the late Gothic and Renaissance Flemish painters and the new, flamboyant Baroque art of the great Antwerp masters Rubens and van Dyck. He was one link in a chain of a tradition that had started a hundred years earlier; a tradition that had not its equal in the brilliant Italian Renaissance. Jan Brueghel was a member of a very famous family of genius artists of Brabant in Belgium.

Jan’s father was Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1528/1530-1569), called the Peasant-Bruegel for the many pictures he painted of the life and feasts of the Brabant villages around Brussels. Pieter’s name was not then pronounced as today, the letter ‘e’ merely indicating a longer pronunciation of the ‘u’. Pieter Bruegel was the most original and powerful artist of the family and Brabant’s most important artist of the sixteenth century. He married a painter’s daughter, Mayken, the daughter of his master Pieter Coecke van Aalst. Aalst is a small town also near Brussels and Pieter Coecke was married to a lady who was equally a painter, a miniaturist. It must have been the joining of these artistic genes that founded subsequent generations of artists.

Two sons of Pieter Bruegel were also painters. Pieter Brueghel II the Younger (1564-1638) was also a gifted artist. He was taught by Maria Verhulst Bessemer, his grandmother, and introduced by her in the art of miniature painting. The Italians because of his production of fire-red images of hell called this Pieter the ‘Hell Brueghel’ or ‘Pieter degli Inferni’. His brother, Jan Brueghel I the Elder, painted many pictures of paradise so that he was famous for exactly the opposite themes of his brother, even though he would occasionally work together with his brother, also on pictures of the hell. Do many families also not have a dark and a bright side, exactly as God had separated light from darkness? It is not surprising then that after a father – Pieter the Elder – so much dedicated to pictures of immediate reality of earth, one son – Pieter the Younger – would show pictures of the underworld and the other – Jan the Elder – of paradise. Pieter the Younger and Jan the Elder were born in Brussels, but both worked in Antwerp. They had sons in their turns that were artists. After Pieter I came his son Pieter II who studied with his father. Jan I Brueghel had a son Jan II. This son mostly only copied his father and his technique is often indistinguishable from his father’s. Jan II had a son Abraham (1631-1697) called the Neapolitan, who was a member of the San Luca Academy of Rome. Various other sons of the Brueghels continued the artistic tradition way into the eighteenth century. There was an Ambrosius Brueghel (1617-1675), Jan Baptist called Meleager (1647-1719), Philips (1635-1662), a Ferdinand (died 1637) and a Jan Peter Brueghel. The family did not only consist merely of artists in direct line of parentage. Jan van Kessel for instance was a grandson of Jan II while David Teniers (1610-1690), the son and pupil of David Teniers the Elder, married Anne, a daughter of Jan II. Their son, David III (1638-1685) was equally a painter.

Antwerp had become a metropolis port around the turn of the century, that bursted of energy, of trade and it was a hub of overseas transport. It was a financial centre where the world’s first stock trading house had been founded. This Antwerp would suffer much from the religious wars of the sixteenth century. Brabant was part of the Spanish kingdom then, a remnant of the empire of Charles V. The Netherlands fought for independence and for their Protestant views of Christian religion against the Catholic Spanish armies and Antwerp had had a very important Protestant community too. Flanders and Brabant were rich but caught between the Netherlands and France, separated from Spain by a thousand kilometres but still governed buy it. The town would rise against Spain together with the Netherlands, but the Spanish armies conquered it definitely in 1585. The Antwerp Protestants were then more or less peacefully driven out and Antwerp would remain Catholic forever. Much wealth left with the Calvinist traders to Amsterdam, but sufficiently rich merchants and bankers remained to live in Contra-Reformist Antwerp to guarantee its splendour. These were avid for paintings to decorate their houses, churches and community buildings. Antwerp rolled on on its acquired wealth and still grew in splendour.

Jan Brueghel the Elder learned his profession not from his father, who had died young, but from the Antwerp masters Pieter Goetkint and Gillis van Coninxloo. He was inscribed in the Saint Lucas Guild of painters of Antwerp in 1557 already.

Two features linked all the painters of the Brueghel family: Italy and landscapes. Pieter Bruegel the Elder had been to Italy from 1551 or 1552 to maybe as late as 1555 or 1556. Pieter had travelled to Rome and he had been as far as Naples. He even visited Palermo on Sicily. Jan Brueghel the Elder also journeyed to Rome and he visited Milan from 1595 to the spring of 1596. He had met in Rome the Lombard collector Federico Borromeo. Pope Clement VIII appointed this Borromeo archbishop of Milan in that same year 1595. Federico admired Jan’s paintings, bought many of his works and even stayed with him in correspondence after Jan’s stay in Milan. Jan occasionally bought Antwerp landscape paintings for the archbishop and sent them to Milan. Federico Borromeo naturally also became a patron of Jan II. Archbishop Federico Borromeo (1564-1631) was a patron of many artists and he particularly liked northern landscape painting, notably of Paul Bril and Jan the Elder. I8. The archbishop was a staunch defender of sacred art. He was also an avid writer and belonged to one of the most prominent families of Milan. One of his forefathers was Saint Carlo Borromeo. Federico founded a library in Milan in 1618, called the Biblioteca Ambrosiana after Saint Ambrose, the patron saint of the town. This library opened a gallery of paintings and Federico also founded there in 1620 an Accademia del Disegno or painters’ school, annexed to the building. His collection would be the basis for the gallery now called the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. In 1775 the Austrian government transferred the academy of painting to Brera, so that another gallery opened there, becoming the contemporary Pinacoteca di Brera. I8. Milan is the proud possessor of two Pinacoteca galleries, unique in the world and leading back to the sixteenth century Maecenas Federico Borromeo.

Many sixteenth century painters of Flanders, Brabant, Germany and Holland travelled to Italy to study the Italian masters and to find patrons for their works. This was one of the first stages in the internationalisation of art. The opposite movement, from the South to the North, remained an exception. But many northern paintings found their way to Italy. This trend grew in the early seventeenth century and examples are the many landscape paintings of Flemish and Dutch artists that landed in Federico Borromeo’s collection. The most beautiful landscapes of Paul Bril and Jan II the Elder are now in the Ambrosiana of Milan.

Landscape painting is a very old art. Ancient Egyptian frescoes exist of gardens, with birds and fowl depicted in two dimensions on the flat surface. Roman villas also contained frescoes or splendid mosaics with motifs of nature. But it was not evident for the early masters to dedicate a canvas or a wall or floor entirely and exclusively to plants and animals. The artists’ first attention was on man, in a very egocentric view. In frescoes, murals, mosaics and paintings of up to the fifteenth century man was quite naturally the centre of the interest of artists. Trees, plants, and landscapes formed the background of paintings. Man was great; landscapes were small. This view did not change during the Italian Renaissance; it was strengthened. By the Renaissance’s emphasis on the philosophies, on antique sculpture and architecture and on the glorification of man’s realisations, man remained more than ever the main subject of art, of mind and eye. The great Italian Renaissance artists favoured portraits, religious scenes of the New Testament, and mythological themes. These had always images of man and woman as the principal element. Landscape painting, in which the main interest was with nature itself, was a northern realisation. For Italy, nature had been given in submission to man so nature was of a second rank, to be used but not to be the centre of admiration.

The Italian masters and collectors were fascinated by the often miniature-sized pictures of Flemish landscape art, even though so many splendid genius artists abounded in their own country. A landscape painting of Paul Bril or Jan Brueghel the Elder found an easy place in the Cardinal Borromeo’s collection, next to the pictures of Bernardino Luini, of Titian and Raphael. Yet, Italian nature is as dramatic as the natural landscapes of Flanders or Brabant. Pieter Bruegel the Elder made engravings and drawings of the Alpine Mountains whereas the Tuscan artists apparently preferred their cities and the realms of their mind, even though the Florentine theorists proposed to draw ‘according to nature’. Nature here was mostly man. Landscape painting did not originate in Flanders, Brabant or Holland. Dutch artists would discover and admire their flat country and their seacoasts mostly only in the seventeenth century. It took a new family of artists originating from a region where man is indeed small and landscape great, where nature was grandiose and where not a tradition of grand human Gothic had overpoweringly impressed man, to start the art of landscape painting.

Joachim Patinir and Henri Blès (called Civetta) were born in the Walloon valley of the river Meuse. They came from around the town of Dinant on the Meuse, where the river cuts in dramatic views through high rocks. Here you can still see a steep valley with breathtaking cliffs surrounded and overgrown by luxurious woods. Nature was wild an untamed here in the fifteenth century and in heavy contrast with the cultured meadows near the sea, the vast fields of grains, the wide streams and the cities of Flanders that rose out of the lowlands. The land of Dinant was full of legends of giants that had shaped nature. You can still find near the town a needle-like high rock. A legend told that this rock was struck from the cliffs of the Meuse valley when four young knights, the Aymon brothers, seated on the back of their enormous horse Bayard sprang from one side of the river to the other to flee from Charlemagne’s armies. The horse’s hooves clashes separated the Bayard rock. No wonder that Patinir and Blès left this wild country that was not devoid of great art for it was known for its art of coppersmiths and blue enamels to live off their art in rich Bruges and Antwerp. They took with them the impressive images of their parents’ nature. More importantly, they must have been astonished to remark the importance given to man and his work. People living in the Meuse valley lived intimately with their nature and soil. Here lived the artisans that worked iron and copper, the marvellous gold- and silversmiths of the Meuse valley. There were very few painters. The land was not rich. In the Flemish and Italian city-states, man was large and nature subdued. Joachim Patinir and Henri Blès – who may have been of the Patinir family himself since he is sometimes mentioned thus in archives – could not but depict the images of their youth and thereby create an entirely new kind of paintings.

Joachim Patinir and Henri Blès invented landscape painting in the fifteenth century. Flemish and Dutch artists after them continued the genre. Pieter Bruegel, so interested in the reality of life around him, also eagerly drew the landscapes he saw on his travels and his sons and followers continued the tradition. But the ideas of the Renaissance had caught up the North too and to landscape painting the Brueghels added mythological themes to create imaginary, fantastic views. Hence the pictures of hell of Pieter the Younger, his Orpheus scenes and the Paradise themes of Jan the Elder. Landscape painting was established firmly by then and successive generations of artists would devote their skills to the genre as well as to flower painting. Indeed, from landscape painting it was quite natural to devote an artist’s interest more closely to the plants and flowers. Brabant painters were Frans Snyders, David Teniers, Hans Bol and Roelandt Savery. This Roelandt Savery, born in Kortrijk of Flanders, learned the genre in Antwerp with Hans Bol. He took the art with him to Utrecht where his pupils were Gillis d’Hondecoeter and Allart van Everdingen. This led to a proficient Dutch school of landscape painting in the seventeenth century, to such artists as Meindert Hobbema, Aelbert Cuyp and the greatest master of them all, Jacob van Ruisdael.

Jan Brueghel the Elder’s ‘Garden of Eden’ is one of the finest of Jan’s landscape pictures. He created a splendid paradise in which all animals live at peace. Lions, tigers, horses and deer are painted in the clearing of a forest to underscore the peace of God’s creation. Various other animals are shown, in one lower strip of the picture. The background of the forest covers most of the frame majestically. The green mass of the foliage on the right is matched by the oblique line of a tree that reclines to the left. This tree takes its root in the middle of the garden, so this must be the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The animals flock around this tree. Jan Brueghel made several pictures on this composition and Roelandt Savery also copied it. There are so many details to discover in this picture. Look at the exotic birds perching high in the tree of knowledge. See the pond with the swans, duck and other waterfowl. Find the rosebushes on the right and the tiny figures of Adam and Eve in the far. Imagine a loving Maecenas like Federico Borromeo walking past such a picture discovering these splendid details of miniature painting. Federico may never have fatigued from admiring the quality of the realism, the brilliant colours and the details of the leaves of the bushes and the branches of the trees. Jan also added symbolism to discover. The tree of knowledge is almost barren and its dark trunks contrast with the lush foliage of the forest. This tree bears no fruit but leads to death, whereas on the right and triumphantly growing are the trees with mature fruit. These trees form a natural corridor that led to life and to Adam and Eve. Man and woman are thus easily walking unhindered amidst the splendour of nature. These scenes are so smooth and flowing that Jan Brueghel was nicknamed the Velvet Brueghel.

Pictures like this ‘Garden of Eden’ showed the beauty of idealised nature free from Sin. The pictures thus appealed not only to Federico Borromeo’s aesthetic aspirations, but also to his practical character. For here were pictures of obvious religious content. Eden was the paradise of God, the image of a nature that could be the Promised Land for devoted believers in Christ. Pictures of the Terrestrial Paradise could be used in teaching as the images of the peace of mind and the rest of the soul that the Christians could hope for. The Paradise was a spiritual Eden and Borromeo must have admired the devote northern painters to have depicted and to have understood so well this concept.

Other paintings:

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