Imagine yourself coming over the brow of a hill, or emerging from the edge of a wood, and seeing this view before you. Perhaps the first thing you will notice is the man sowing seed just below you on the left. There are two grey sacks of what might be seed sitting at the edge of this barren patch of ground nearer to his cottage. Maybe it is his wife who is doing something near the door. In the centre foreground there is a tree stump and around it some stones. On the left there are some brambles. The soil doesn’t look very promising, but yet the sower sows. By contrast, on the right there is a very healthy looking crop of corn of some kind. Although still green, it is already tall. The sun shines on this field. Some of this corn has seeded itself around the tree stump among the stones. Near the edge of the crop of corn there is a small child playing in the sun. Another child has a climbed one of the trees. The could be his neighbour’s field and the children might be his as well. Shade and sunshine underline the contrast between the fortunes the two households. Is this why the sower looks to the right as he scatters the seed? Is he hoping for a crop like his neighbour’s? His patch of land shaded by the trees doesn’t look as promising and yet he goes on sowing.
Beyond these holdings the land falls away steeply. Below them a road winds its way through a meadow. There is man standing and another, on horseback, climbs the hill. You can see a church and beyond it another dwelling near the water’s edge. There are cows in the field. The lake stretches almost to the horizon. There are boats coming and going from a walled town. From this view point, another much bigger church rises high above the town’s roof tops. On a peak above the town there is a fortress. Across the water a crowd is gathering near the water’s edge. People are coming on foot from the town. Others have come by boat. The whole scene is suffused by the light of early morning. A new day has begun. Is this Jesus who is there on the shore speaking to them in parables?
In this painting Bruegel illustrates the parable of the sower but what is unique is that it is set within a much wider and vast landscape. It is the relationship between the natural world and the reception of the Word of God which Bruegel shows. We sense the beauty of both. Both parable and painting draw upon the common human task. But the tasks go on within the landscape and are part of it. Human living and the natural world influence and shape each other. The town and the church is no doubt built from locally quarried stone. The small boats are perhaps fishing vessels, harvesting the sea and yet subject to its perils. Human hands have laid out fields, planted crops, in the hope of a good harvest, cut down trees for fire wood, built cottages and thatched them with straw. And it can all find expression in the sower sowing.
The artist who became known as Pieter Bruegel the Elder signed and dated this work in 1557. Two years before, he had settled in Antwerp having had an extended stay in Italy. Little is known about him. But it seems likely that by this year he had established himself as a landscape painter. Despite his reputation as a painter of peasant scenes as if he were there himself, his landscapes are the work of quite a sophisticated and urbane artist who seems to have painted for a small circle of elite clients in the then wealthy city of Antwerp. In contrast to Italy, there was a demand landscape paintings.
The genre goes back a long way in Netherlandish art. It originated in the what might be termed “calendar art”. A good example is shown above. It is “The Month of March” in “Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” by the Limbourg Brothers (c.1415). In Antwerp the great pioneer was Joachim Patinir (1480 – 1524). Patinir is credited with the invention of what became known as the “world landscape” (weltlandschaft in German) . These were fictional panoramic views from a height. The land falls away, and a sense of depth and distance is by created by the diminishing size of landscape elements and by the use of use of colour. Typically, the foreground would be painted in a darker earthy brown, the middle distance green and the distant horizon, where the earth and sky meet, light blue. But Bruegel uses colour to convey not just distance but also the atmospheric condition. Often the subject is biblical or historical, but the human figures are small within the vastness of the natural world. Although Bruegel’s scene are fictional, they show the world as it is. This is true also of his peasant scenes. Uniquely, the wedding guests actually eat and drink. An Italian artist would show guest seated at tables laden with food and drink, but they neither eat nor drink. Nor does he shy away from showing other bodily functions! Famously, the poet Auden begins his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” with “About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters: how well they understood/ Its human position”. He was referring to Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” of 1558. It can be said that in his landscapes Bruegel does indeed show our “human position” within, and as part of, God’s creation. The landscape is not there simply to show off someone’s castle or as a backdrop to some typical human activity such as ploughing in March. It is painted for its own sake. Bruegel succeeds in conveying the time of year not simply by showing the human activity typical of the season but by close observation of how the landscape looks in spring or in the depth of winter. In short then, for modern viewers these landscapes speak of our relationship with creation. Here in what is perhaps Bruegel’s earliest serving landscape, the Word is sown in human hearts but it is within the whole of creation. This is the Word through the world was made positioning himself within that world.
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