As its title indicates, this book attempts to take a broader view at a much debated topic: the interpretation of landscape representations in northern Europe between ca. 1400 and 1670. Bakker is not primarily interested in the establishment of a new genre – the seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting – nor in the emergence of what has often has been called “realism” or “naturalism.” In fact, this book, a slightly abridged translation of his Landschap en wereldbeeld van Van Eyck tot Rembrandt (2006), is a daring attack on the conviction shared by many art historians that “the subject of the landscape [is] a theme devoid of meaning and of little relevance to the understanding of the picture.” (1) Bakker is not so much interested in the painted landscape, but rather in ideas about the landscape. Contemporary ideas, Bakker contends, provide the key to the understanding of pictures. Bakker explicitly endorses a contextualizing approach; he assumes that “early Netherlandish paintings, including that of the seventeenth century, cannot be regarded as an autonomous phenomenon, but must be explored in the light of the traditional intellectual climate of its time.” (3) And – importantly – Bakker is much more interested in the longue durée of these ideas than in paradigm shifts or interpretations of specific works by specific artists. Thus, as this book makes clear, he expressly disagrees with various forms of orthodox “iconology,” as employed by scholars such as Egbert Haverkamp- Begemann, Alan Chong, Simon Schama, and Catherine Levesque, according to whom the Dutch landscape of the seventeenth century became the expression of a new urban sense of patriotism.
The main argument of this book is that it is religion that forms the basso continuo for ideas about, and representations of the landscape. As Bakker convincingly argues, the clavis interpretandi is the deeply anchored Christian conviction, going back to Romans 1:20 and the writings of St. Augustine, that Nature is God’s second revelation to man. In 13 erudite and well-documented chapters, Bakker elaborates on his thesis, focusing, among others, on representations of landscape in the works of Jan van Eyck, Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Joachim Patinir, and Hieronymus Bosch. After an intriguing intermezzo, “The Painter as Geographer: Cartographic and Topographical Landscapes,” the book continues with chapters on post-Reformation artists, such as Pieter Bruegel, Karel van Mander, Zacharius Heyns, Claes Jansz Visscher, and, finally, Rembrandt. In each instance, Bakker closely examines the works of art – whether drawings, prints, or paintings – within the context of contemporary ideas. The bottom line is the notion of the liber naturae: God’s creation is a mirror of His majesty and power and has the same status as God’s written word. Thus, to study nature, to think about nature, or to represent nature, implies religious connotations.
Seen from this perspective, it makes perfect sense that Bakker is more interested in longer term developments than specific artistic schools or geographic boundaries. The evident risks of this approach – Zeitgeist-like assumptions, or the straightjacket of epistèmes or paradigms – is countered by meticulous analysis of the intellectual milieu of the protagonists of his narrative. For example, Bakker connects the Limbourg Brothers and Van Eyck to the mysticism of the Meuse region, and he links Pieter Bruegel and Abraham Ortelius to the Stoic revival of the sixteenth century. While Neostoicism is usually seen as a moral philosophy, Bakker rightly points to its physical and metaphysical connotations: everything in the world reflects the divine. In what is perhaps the most important argument made in this book, Bakker connects this undercurrent in sixteenth-century philosophy to the thought of John Calvin, to whom natural theology was as important as revealed theology; in other words, Creation had the same divine status as the Bible. By observing and depicting nature, man grasped God’s power or, as Calvin wrote: ‘We must therefore admit in God’s individual works – but especially in them as a whole- that God’s powers are actually represented as in a painting.” (157).
As Bakker points out, this idea held great influence in the Netherlands, as witnessed by the writings of, for example, Zacherias Heyns and Constantijn Huygens. He could have added a reference to article II of the Belgic Confession, the foundation of Dutch Reformed orthodoxy, which states explicitly that nature is God’s second book. This conviction, by implication, influenced “reading” and depicting the landscape. From this perspective, it did not matter whether nature was represented as more symbolic (for example in the work of Van Eyck), as more emblematic, or as more “naturalistic” (as in the cases of Van Ruysdael and Rembrandt). These forms also could overlap, as could multiple layers of meaning in these images. Indeed, despite a tendency towards a more “realistic” approach in the seventeenth century, Bakker argues that this trend should not be interpreted as an inevitable step in a process of specialization and secularization, making the paintings devoid of any deeper meaning. Studies in the field of the history of science, religion, and philosophy have demonstrated how across this century the regularity and order of nature were increasingly seen as proof of the existence of God, the almighty architect. This claim was accompanied by an increasing stress on the detailed study, observation, and depiction of nature – a process usually seen as a teleological “Scientifice Revolution,” but recent research has suggested a far more complicated process, closely connected to, for example, biblical exegesis and the rise of philology. If we consider the wider discourse on the meaning of landscape representations (and comparable ongoing discussions, e.g. on still-life paintings), Bakker’s argument is very plausible. His book thus provides a welcome contribution both to art history and to the history of science, which in the last decade has developed a great interest in visual culture.
Leiden University/Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands