Most landscapes don’t contain around 500 identifiable people, but this landscape is different, on many levels. It has a lot in common with one I blogged about several years ago, the extraordinary and beautiful Magpie on the Gallows. Bruegel’s The Way to Calvary is one of the many Netherlandish masterworks in Vienna’s mind bogglingly good Kunsthistorisches Museum. It is now 452 years since it was painted.
This one exerts a strange effect on people. It is the sole subject of one of the best art monographs you could ever read, Michael Gibson’s The Mill and the Cross (1, 2) Gibson is an exceptionally clear and unstuffy writer, who is a brilliant analyst of a painting – and the associated history. He had unprecedented access to the painting from the enlightened gallery curators. He has spent literally hours poring over the painting, and his book allows you to do that too.
The painting has numerous subtexts related to Netherlandish folklore, peasant life, and running through it, the hardcore cruelty of the Spanish control of the Netherlands, exerted by the fearsome Duke of Alba on behalf of Philip II. They’re his men riding across the centre of the picture. As so often with Bruegel, the theme is one thing – Calvary is tiny, in the top right, Jesus is barely noticeable at first, in the dead centre – the overall composition is another. Like Bosch and Patinir, he was a master of the far off blue distances, and the detailed smaller scenes such as the towns and buildings (top left). Gibson makes the point that there are three circles – Calvary, the town (incomplete), and the main central one of the procession and associated hangers on, which seems to revolve around the axis of the upright mill on the extraordinary crag, which may or may not be a visual metaphor for God’s role in all this. Charles Bouleau, who wrote a great book on the topic in 1963, The Painter’s Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art, would have a field day with it all. To give a flavour of that I’ve added Gibson’s three circles, the diagonals at the intersection of which is Christ, the three ‘landscape layers’ of foreground, middle and distance, and the most obvious verticals. There are three very similar irregular shapes – the front left rock, the mill with the rock and trees at its base, and Mary with her companions, front right. Bouleau would have found more spatial relationships, no doubt. There is nothing accidental in the composition.
Amazingly, the story and composition of the painting became a film in 2011, with Rutger Hauer doing an unsurpassable turn as Bruegel. It is genuinely mesmerising, and got terrific reviews (1,2,3), particularly for an ‘art film’. When Russ Meyer’s buddy Roger Ebert is enthralled then you know you’ve struck a chord. Gibson co-wrote it with the Polish director Majewski, and it effortlessly recreates the Middle Ages like Borowcyk’s Blanche or Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales. Not easy to accomplish, as it’s mostly about mood and authenticity. The whole film is occasionally available on YouTube, here’s the trailer: