Those familiar with Michel Weemans’s recent books, as contributor to the exhibition catalogue, Fables du paysage flamande: Bosch, Bles, Brueghel, Bril, edited by Alain Tapie (Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 2012-13), and as co-editor (with Walter Melion and James Clifton) of Imago Exegetica: Visual Images as Exegetical Instruments, 1400-1700 (Brill 2014), will not be surprised either by the subject of the present monograph or its interpretative strategy of hermeneutics. Both author and subject are well served by the publisher’s gorgeously produced, folio-size volume, beautifully filled with full-page and large-detail color reproductions.
Weemans begins by drawing attention to certain paradoxes that define Bles’s career and output. The artist is abundantly documented in the posthumous literature and in international, aristocratic collection-inventories of the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, yet during his lifetime scarcely any contemporary information on him survives. Traditionally overshadowed by Patinir, founder of the Flemish “world landscape” tradition, and by the art of Pieter Bruegel, seen as that tradition’s culmination, Herri met de Bles, nonetheless, was hardly a historical footnote. His influence was substantial, widespread, and enduring, exerting an impact on Bruegel, but even more so upon artists of the following generation, such as Jan Brueghel, Paul Bril, and Roelant Savery. As the present study makes clear, the subtlety and extent of iconographic meanings in Bles’s work, plus his significant pictorial inventions, have not been sufficiently recognized or appreciated.
Weemans’s commitment to reading Bles’s paintings as an expression of the “Book of Nature” (Origen, Augustine, Bonaventure, among others), through an allegorical and exegetical lens, builds upon the precedents of Reindert Falkenburg’s symbolic interpretation of Patinir’s landscapes (Joachim Patinir: Landscape as an Image of the Pilgrimage of Life, Benjamins 1988) and, more recently, Boudewijn Bakker’s argument for reading Bles’s Earthly Paradise (Rijksmuseum; Weemans fig. 40) as a dual allegory of the original Edenic paradise and the new Heavenly paradise (Landscape and Religion: From Van Eyck to Rembrandt, Ashgate 2012). This painting, which is the subject of Chapter Two and Weemans’s first extended exegetical reading of Bles’s work, underscores the dualism that the author sees in all of the artist’s oeuvre. The contextual foundation for Weeman’s reading of Bles’s art is developed from Erasmus’s exegetical and other writings, invoked throughout the book.
Bles repeated certain favorite themes, and this preoccupation provides a strategy for Weemans to organize the book and advance his hermeneutic ideas. Individual chapters detail the Blesian allegorical meanings of the Good Samaritan, the Preaching of John the Baptist, David and Bathsheba, the Flight into Egypt, the Conversion of Paul, and others. The fact that some of the artist’s favored themes, such as the Earthly Paradise, the Good Samaritan, or the Sleeping Peddler Attacked by Monkeys, are themselves relatively unusual subjects underscores the artist’s choice of themes in order to develop his symbolic program.
To take a rather straightforward example, one might turn to a common subject, such as the Flight into Egypt. In the artist’s panel in Barcelona (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya; fig. 165), Bles bases his composition on Patinir’s earlier painting in Antwerp (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten; fig. 166). But whereas Patinir represents the Holy Family traveling uphill toward the mountainous region on the left (the sacred realm), with their backs to the broad farmlands and harbor on the right (the profane realm), Bles added, in the lower center, a prominent sleeping figure. This figure cannot be accounted for by the biblical narrative; it is Bles’s invention. Weemans interprets him as the human soul, who, in the pilgrimage of life, is faced with a choice: awaken and proceed to the mountaintop and celestial city, like the Holy Family, or else descend to the lower, shadowy realms, like two other travelers seen in the middle distance. Bles has taken a traditional iconography, recycled from Patinir, and by adding the sleeping pilgrim, the celestial city, and travelers in darkness, has reinscribed it as a meditation on personal choice and the importance of the Christian way.
A particularly deft chapter on the anthropomorphic rocks in Bles’s art – his crypto-images of heads – offers a fascinating study in its own right as well as a mini-history of this phenomenon in European art (from Piero di Cosimo and Bosch to Arcimboldo and Joos de Momper), plus a signal instance of the paradox and duality informing much of Bles’s art. Weemans relates this phenomenon (in part) to the age-old topos of man-as-microcosm. The creation of humans as the final installment of God’s creation inscribed within man the four elements of all Creation and placed him at the center of the world, exemplifying the rest of Creation. In Bles’s mountainous head-forms, each element of the landscape manifests an aspect of the crypto-image. Here, the Book of Nature literally renders a secondary visual text, even as the landscape painting records nature’s topography. Weemans argues that this dual paradigm evokes the Christian concept of a double vision – external versus internal sight, sinful perception versus spiritual discernment.
The book opens with an overview of Bles’s life and afterlife and an introduction to the author’s interpretive themes. Weemans is skeptical of the frequent claim that Bles is the nephew of Patinir. He also reconsiders Bles’s well-known practice of including an owl (civetta in Italian) as a personal brand and hidden signature in his work. Weemans sees this as another manifestation of Bles’s dual vision: the naturalistic appearance of the owl, plus its function as authorial identification. But he goes further, contending that Bles’s owl was chosen for its larger emblematic signification as the two faces of spiritual vision: blindness and acute (nocturnal) perception.
One minor quibble: to invoke Bruegel in the subtitle is not strictly accurate. Bles died around 1550 or shortly thereafter, whereas Bruegel’s Netherlands career began around 1555 in Hieronymus Cock’s shop. They were not contemporaries, and Bruegel’s ideas, unlike Erasmus’s, do not parallel or precede Bles’s career. Perhaps for marketing purposes the publisher wanted another name more familiar than Erasmus’s.
This thoughtful book is filled with keen observations that repay careful study. The book displays the same virtues as the paintings it examines. Using the author’s own terminology, these are the qualities of “distance,” in the sense of enveloping comprehensiveness, and “meticulousness:” the vast accumulation of expertly observed and executed details.