Dawn Hollis, “Landscape Appreciation Before Romanticism? Mountains in Early Modern Art, 1500-1700”

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Dawn Hollis

I am a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. I have previously studied at the University of Cambridge (MPhil in Early Modern History) and the University of Oxford (BA, Modern History).

My PhD research is on the history of reactions to mountains in the early modern period. The historiography of the European relationship to the landscape has long held that, before the first ascent of Mont Blanc and before the formulation of the Sublime, people largely feared and avoided mountains. The wealth of sources that I have discovered within my period – 1550-1750 -attesting to significant interaction with and indeed appreciation for mountains, has led me to reconsider this narrative.

The sources for my research include travellers’ accounts, poetry, art, and natural philosophical debates. These all reveal that early modern understandings of the landscape were deeply informed by both classical literature and Biblical traditions. Discussions of the origins of mountains would gnaw anxiously at the differing implications of Scripture and the Greek and Latin corpora. ‘Atlas transformed into a mountain’ was an especially popular seventeenth-century print, whilst numerous sixteenth-century painters chose to depict the Madonna and Child in front of a background of rocky hills and mountains. Travellers to the Holy Land would ascend Mount ‘Quarantine’, to stand on the very spot that Jesus was tempted by the devil, and gaze up at the snowy top of Mount Ararat (5137m). The terms by which people in Europe related to mountains certainly changed between the early modern and modern periods, but it was by no means a straightforward shift from negativity to positivity.

Although I have always been an early modernist (broadly defined!) at heart, I came to my current project via more recent historical interests, having previously investigated the cultural preconceptions of Tibet as expressed in sources relating to the early Everest expeditions (1921-1924). I have also edited a collection of letters written by Elizabeth Elstob (1686-1756), the early Anglo-Saxonist, and have analysed varying constructions of the ‘idea of North’ articulated by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Southern English travellers to Northern England and Scotland. Above all, and regardless of specific topic, place, or period, I am intrigued by the unspoken assumptions, cultural values, and emotional experiences that can be retrieved from historical sources.

At “Paysage / Landscape” 2014

In December 2014 I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at an Interdisciplinary Landscape Seminar at the Institut Français. My paper was entitled ‘Landscape Appreciation Before Romanticism? Mountains in Early Modern Art, 1500-1700’. You can download a copy of my slides here.

I opened my paper by discussing the historiographical perception relating to mountains in Europe. I highlighted three different ‘developments’ which are said to be unique to ‘modernity’, or post-1750: the climbing of mountains for the specific purpose of reaching their summits; the aesthetic perception of the Sublime; and the painting of landscapes for their own sake. Taken together, these three developments have represented to historians a shift from early modern ‘mountain gloom’ to modern ‘mountain glory’. Although all of these elements can be problematised, my paper considered artworks in particular.

I shared a series of images highlighting the importance of classical allusions in early modern artworks containing mountains. These included tapestries and prints of such moments in classical literature as Psyche being carried to a mountain for her wedding (to a monster, as predicted by an Oracle), Psyche being worshipped in front of mountains, and Atlas being transformed into a mountain. Although these images were not necessarily positive they hinted towards the ubiquity of mountains in early modern art – they were certainly not actively avoided as potential subjects. A final classical example was that of a plaster frieze in Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, built in the 1590s. It shows hunting scenes with Diana and Venus, supposedly representations of Elizabeth I (in preparation for a royal visit). Significantly, the huntresses inhabit a rocky, hilly landscape, marked with long cliff-faces – in short, the local landscape of Derbyshire. Mountains, then, were fit for both goddesses and queens.

I then discussed the relationship between mountains and religious artworks. There are many mountains mentioned in the Bible – Mount Sinai, Mount Ararat, the Mount of Temptation – and these are all heavily referenced (and indeed physically visited) in early modern textual sources. However, artworks tended to take a very different subject indeed – with dozens of paintings from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries placing the Madonna and Child, one of the most beloved and comforting images within the Christian canon, before a backdrop of mountains. To me, this seriously problematised the idea that mountains were seen as frightful, feared spaces in the early modern worldview. In such a context, mountains could be included to represent ‘the wilderness’, so central to Jesus’ spiritual journey towards the Cross. However, crucially, this wilderness is not a negative space, but rather one of testing, success, and growth.

I concluded by sharing one of my favourite pieces of religious artwork depicting mountains – Philippe de Champaigne’s Christ Healing the Blind (c.1657). In it, a crowd including Jesus and the blind man are crowded into the foreground of the painting, with the bulk of the image given over to a glowing mountain landscape, towards which the blind man is directly oriented: the first thing he would see after his miraculous healing would be the natural wonder of God’s creation. Mountain gloom? Perhaps not.