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Boudewijn Bakker, Landscape and Religion from Van Eyck to Rembrandt. Trans. By Diane Webb. (Burlington: Ashgate, 2012). ISBN: 978-1-4094-0486-6, 394 pp., 86 b/w ills. and 31 color plates. $134.95 / £70.

Reviewed by Alexandra Onuf

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[1] Landscape and Religion from Van Eyck to Rembrandt provides an English translation of Boudewijn Bakker’s 2004 Dutch publication, Landschap en Wereldbeeld van Van Eyck tot Rembrandt, which formed the author’s doctoral thesis at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Specialists in the field of Netherlandish or Dutch landscape are likely already familiar with Bakker’s exhaustively researched and eloquent book, which has received a great deal of well-deserved critical praise. It has also provoked its fair share of debate, as any new approach to the interpretation of Dutch landscape is wont to do. This English translation broadens the reach of Bakker’s book beyond the sphere of specialists to international audiences in a wide range of fields. It has been shortened from the Dutch original, which allows Bakker to communicate his argument as a more cohesive, succinct narrative.

[2] The title of the book’s English version already signals its main premise. Beginning around 1400, Van Eyck and other artists began to accord landscape an increasingly prominent place in painting. From this point right through to the end of Rembrandt’s career around 1670, Bakker believes landscape art is integrally linked to religion – by which he means a widespread, traditional Christian worldview as opposed to the theological dogma of any particular denomination. This runs counter to the position long championed by art historians, namely that the emergence of independent Northern landscape paintings was a triumph of pure artistic expression or aesthetic pleasure over meaningful content. As landscapes were freed from the confines of religious paintings, where they served as supposedly neutral backdrops, they became increasingly ‘pure’, a realm of art in which artists could showcase their virtuosity or experiment with the decorative effects of form and composition for their own sakes. Bakker rejects this interpretation wholeheartedly, arguing instead that landscapes were, in fact, never neutral backdrops and that they were never freed from the religious meanings that had always determined their form and function. In his formulation, the representation of the landscape that emerged in the North around 1400 grew out of a fundamental theological need to represent the ‘book of nature’. Contemplating the visible world could elevate the minds of the faithful to a spiritual appreciation of the divine Creator. This fundamentally theological outlook did not disappear in the early modern period, but rather continued to prevail and evolve over the course of the following three centuries, until a more causative Enlightenment worldview took root. Prior to that shift in mentality, however, artists and viewers alike would have viewed landscapes as essentially religious pictures, as they reflected the beauty of Creation, whether or not they included overt religious or Biblical content or references.

[3] The first several chapters of the book offer a primer in the theological and Scholastic thought that forms the basis for this enduring traditional Christian worldview. This is not the type of material typically mustered by art historians and offers a very welcome new perspective on the period. Among other principles, Bakker highlights how theologians sought to reveal four layers of meaning (literal or historical, allegorical, moral or tropological, and finally anagogical or spiritual) within the texts of the Bible, suggesting that the same mode or habit of analogical thinking was applied to the interpretation of the created world and images of it. The sources he cites, from Aquinas and Augustine to Hugh of St Victor and late medieval mystics like Hendrik Mande of the Brethren of the Common Life, discuss the Book of Nature as a representation or likeness of God. Bakker convincingly demonstrates that this spiritual vision of the physical world was so pervasive and ‘common as to be a cliché’  (p. 25). It is a natural leap then to assume that painters, who devote themselves to making likenesses, would see it as ‘their duty to propagate divine revelation in visual form’ (p. 34).

[4] But it is worth pausing for a moment to take stock of the steps in Bakker’s logic here. In an effort to explain the emergence of landscape paintings, he takes as his starting point ‘not the painted landscape; instead I have taken contemporary ideas about the visible world and the real landscape as pars pro toto, in the assumption that these ideas are reflected in the visual arts’ (p. 1). (Bakker offers numerous examples of how he sees these contemporary ideas and methods of thinking reflected in landscape paintings in Chapters 5 and 6.) In other words, Bakker builds a framework for understanding paintings through an assessment of what theologians had to say about the significance of nature and the actual visible world. Landscape paintings, real landscapes, nature, and the visible world at its most inclusive are all, thanks to the contemporary mindset of symbolic thinking, essentially analogous; what an author wrote about nature is, mutatis mutandi, what he and others must also have applied to their thinking about depicted landscapes.

[5] Since there is such a dearth of contemporary sources on landscape painting, as Bakker acknowledges, it is impossible to know if early-modern people looked at nature and pictures of nature in exactly the same way and with the same expectations and experiences. But Calvin, who plays a crucial role in Bakker’s account, provides an instructive example. In Chapter 8, Bakker champions Calvin as one of the few sixteenth-century authors whose writing framed contemporary views about the created world, ultimately explaining nature as ‘both a God-created work of art and God’s self-revelation’ (p. 159) that can serve as an example to mankind of God’s goodness and perfection. If nature and pictures of nature are essentially analogical, then it stands to reason that Calvin would believe that landscape paintings held the same exemplary and spiritual functions. However, Bakker himself notes later in the book that Calvin ‘with regard to the portrayal of things in nature, including landscapes,… wrote that in his view their main purpose was to delight, thus implicitly admitting that he did not detect much (spiritual) use in such pictures’ (p. 242). If as subtle and careful a thinker and theologian as Calvin saw actual nature and painted nature in such different terms, what leads Bakker to think that the broader populace would have been more predisposed to conjoin them?

[6] If this example showcases the difficulty of bridging the distance between texts and images or reality and representation, Bakker faces an equally difficult obstacle in establishing convincing boundaries to his study. One such boundary is temporal: the traditional Christian worldview he describes, medieval in origin, does not begin in 1400, so it is difficult to account for the relatively sudden surge in pictorial interest in landscapes around that time in particular. On the other end, it is clear that the taste for landscapes continued beyond 1670, but Bakker offers no analysis of how landscapes painted after this cut-off compare to those produced according to the traditional Christian worldview.

[7] Another problematic boundary is geographic: if one assumes that this worldview extended beyond the regions of France, Burgundy, and the Netherlands to the rest of Europe, then it is unclear why the tradition of landscape painting flourished so particularly in this specific region. Do the landscapes produced in Germany or Venice, for instance, merit the same theological interpretation? There is good pictorial and material evidence that Netherlandish landscapes constitute a specific artistic tradition, but Bakker does not provide equally clear evidence that the worldview he relies on to interpret these works was so bounded, or how and why it impacted upon northern artists, in particular, the way that it did.

[8] Finally, the difficult boundaries of genre and medium: on the one hand, Bakker takes a wide view of landscapes across media, incorporating paintings, prints, maps, and an occasional drawing into his argument. That said, he treats these as essentially interchangeable pictorial statements, without engaging the tremendous visual, practical, experiential and epistemological differences between, say, an easel painting and a print. Several scholars have argued that the technology of printing produced a defining shift in worldview from the medieval period to the Renaissance. In bypassing any analysis of the impact of medium on the message, Bakker represents both the religious worldview and the landscapes it produced as more stable and monolithic than seems merited in light of this scholarship. If he treats artistic medium indiscriminately, he is perhaps a bit too selective when it comes to genre. He offers a rather narrow selection of artists and works to demonstrate the unifying religious framework encompassing all landscapes. Bakker proceeds methodically from illuminated manuscripts and the early work of Van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Petrus Christus, and Gerard David in the fifteenth century, to Hieronymus Bosch, Joachim Patinir and Pieter Bruegel in the sixteenth, and Claes Visscher and Rembrandt in the seventeenth. But this trajectory leaves to the side so much of the diverse variety of landscape imagery, both in paintings and in prints, particularly as the genre exploded in popularity in the sixteenth century. The reader is left to wonder how the rustic rural landscapes of an artist like Abel Grimmer or the prints featuring violent attacks on peasants and travelers in the countryside after Hans Bol or David Vinckboons would fit within the schema he sets forth. He acknowledges that some maps and topographic landscapes served political and civic rather than religious purposes (pp. 125-132), but there are certainly a range of other interpretive possibilities beyond these two that could be profitably considered in a more inclusive assessment of the full range of landscape imagery across this time period.

[9] Despite these reservations, Bakker’s book is an extremely useful and engaging addition to the scholarship on Netherlandish and Dutch landscapes and to the early modern period more generally. He puts forth a powerful and comprehensive interpretation not just of landscape pictures, but perhaps even more compelling, of an enduring theological mentality operating throughout these centuries. He seeks to highlight the continuity and coherence of this period over time, a continuity that persisted in the face of dramatic economic, social, demographic, and political changes. This condensed English edition, beautifully illustrated and carefully translated, is especially welcome as it offers the rich results of Bakker’s combined theological and art historical research to a wider circle of scholars and will, as a result, continue to inspire further thinking in the broad field of Netherlandish studies.

 University of Hartford, June 2013