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In 1552 . . .

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Pieter Brueghel crossed the Alps into Italy.

The Flemish artist was already known for his sympathetic images of rural life, and after his return to the Netherlands, he became one of the first painters to attend carefully to landscapes, drawing upon experience rather than idealized scenes from Biblical tradition. In 1567 he finished this interpretation of The Conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus. Here, Paul’s conversion occurs in the mountains, and it is hard not to imagine St. Paul as the younger Brueghel, afoot on the Brenner Pass, in the shadow of the Dolomites and looking down into the Italian lakes.

Centuries later, Brueghel’s painting resurfaced in an important history of European attitudes toward alpine places. Jacek Wozniakowski’s 1974 book Gory niewzruszone, or Impassive Heights, translated into German in 1987 as Die Wildnis, argued that early Modern painters like Brueghel, rather than Enlightenment geologists or Romantic poets, provided the real foundation for mountain appreciation.

Look again at The Conversion of Paul: Here the mountains harbor neither demons nor dragons. They are instead the stage for Paul’s ecstatic and personal experience of God. If we follow Wozniakowski’s account, a forgotten strain of Christianity, rather than secular science, gave us mountaineering, modern landscape painting, and maybe even environmentalism.

A few recent works have followed in Wozniakowski’s footsteps. Simon Schama drew upon the Polish art historian’s narrative in his Landscape and Memory. And more recent scholarly work, in France and Germany, especially, has explored the place of mountains in older European religious traditions. At the very least, Gory niewszruszone forces us to think more carefully about the ways we see alpine images.

Still, the question remains: If Europeans developed that appreciation for alpine places well before the Enlightenment, how then did the major peaks remain untouched?

Brueghel’s original hangs in the Kunsthistoricsches Museum in Vienna.

admin @ January 31, 2010

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