The present work is, in fact, Brueghel’s first known painting in which he sets the scene from Genesis 7:1-4, in which the animals are called to Noah's ark in an Eden-like paradise. It is dated 1596, so he either painted it while in Milan with his patron Cardinal Federico Borromeo, or shortly after on his return to Antwerp in October of that year. As the work comes from a Milanese collection, it is most likely that Brueghel painted it in Italy and left it there when he returned to the Netherlands. In depicting the plenitude and beauty of God’s creation with such evident delight, he marries the Cardinal’s religious views to his own artistic preferences and in doing so creaties a painting of beguiling charm and beauty.
While the concept of God revealing himself through his natural creations can been seen in the Kunst- and Wunderkammer of Northern Europe, and indeed in the paintings of Jan’s father Pieter Bruegel the Elder, it was in Italy that the younger artist’s religious outlook was molded. He stayed with Cardinal Borromeo in Rome and Milan from 1592 to 1596, and his time there had a profound effect on him for his entire career and on the development of the paradise landscape itself. Borromeo was steeped in the teaching of the Counter-Reformation whereby all of God's creation had value and was worthy of contemplation and he, himself, particularly emphasized the beauty and diversity of the animal world.1 In I tre libri delle laudi divine (published only posthumously in 1632) he writes: “Looking then with attentive study at animals’ construction and formation, and at their parts, members, and characters, can it not be said how excellently divine wisdom has demonstrated the value of its great works?”2
What Borromeo describes in words, Brueghel does so here in oil on copper. He lovingly depicts the variety of creatures waiting to enter the ark, though contrary to the Biblical story in only a few cases are they in pairs. He is mainly concerned with presenting the animals from a characteristic viewpoint so as to be easily identified; thus two delightful peacock-like birds float in the sky as if the wind under their exotic tails were keeping them aloft rather than their wings. The lion and leopard are each in profile, perhaps to clearly distinguish one from another, and a doe and stag are pictured with their heads turned in so that the male's antlers can be clearly seen. In the lower left corner, closest to the viewer, is a lovely dapple grey horse who, for some reason, has his tongue sticking out.
Brueghel painted the present work only two years after his very first Paradise Landscape, now in the Doria Pamphilij, Rome. That picture incorporates a small vignette with the Creation of Man in the background, but the main focus is on the animals and the landscape itself. The earlier painting is organized around a large tree filled with birds at the center of the composition, while in the present work a similar tree is moved to the right to create a path for the animals waiting to enter the ark. The overall structure of both paintings, with their relatively high point of view and aerial perspective is still grounded in the 16th century Flemish model, though in later paintings the artist evolved a more naturalistic approach to the landscape.
In the middle distance of the present work members of Noah’s family dressed, in vaguely biblical clothes, are walking toward the ark accompanied by some of their domestic animals. In the background are scenes of villagers eating and dancing, presumably part of the population of sinners about to be lost in the coming flood. However, they are in 16th century dress and are set in what appears to be a contemporary village. This combination of biblical subjects with scenes taken from contemporary Flemish life is one of the most characteristic elements of Brueghel’s composition and can be seen in his work throughout his entire career. So, too, is his combining of events taking place at different times into a single composition: here pairing a scene from Paradise with Noah’s ark.
The Paradise Landscape was to be one of Brueghel’s favored subjects earning him the nickname Paradise Brueghel. He continued refining his treatment of the subject throughout his career, but this early example with its gentle touch and somewhat whimsically depicted animals is among the finest examples of his artistry.
1. A.F. Kolb, Jan Brueghel the Elder: The Entry of Noah’s Animals into the Ark, Los Angeles 2005, p. 50.
2. Ibid. p. 51.
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