In 1559 Margaret of Parma, the illegitimate daughter of Emperor Charles V, became Regent of the Netherlands, one of the most important of the vast Habsburg possessions. She appointed as President of the Council of State, effectively her Prime Minister, a French-born diplomat and prelate, Antoine Perranot Granvelle, who had served King Philip II of Spain for many years. He was created Archbishop of Malines in 1560 and became a cardinal a year later. However, his policies created unrest and hostility and in 1564, on the advice of Philip II he retired but later resumed his career, becoming Viceroy of Naples and Chief Minister of Spain.
In 1563 Pieter Bruegel married Mayken (or Maria) Coecke, the daughter of Pieter Coecke van Aelst, in whose studio he had spent several years learning his trade as a painter. The marriage took place in Brussels and in the same year Bruegel moved from Antwerp to that city. Shortly after his arrival he painted Landscape with the Flight into Egypt for Cardinal Granvelle.
In common with many of his other compositions, this small landscape emphasises the dominant role of nature in the lives of contemporary men and women. The ragged, deeply indented coastline of an estuary or large lake stretches away into the distance. Settlements cling to the shore beneath improbably craggy mountains. This imaginary, composite landscape had its genesis in Bruegel’s visit to Italy, via France and Switzerland between 1551 and 1554, but those unstable crags also betray the influence of Joachim Patinir, the Antwerp artist who, at the beginning of the sixteenth century had been the first painter to elevate landscape into a subject in its own right, no longer subordinate to the religious narrative taking place within the picture. The elevated viewpoint and the banded aerial perspective (whereby distance is suggested by the use of three zones of differing colour — brown in the foreground, blue-green for the middle distance and greyish blue for the background) are also derived from Patinir. But in Bruegel’s hands the landscape becomes much more believable, the perspective more precise, creating a more credible depth beneath a beautifully luminous sky.
The Holy Family struggles to make progress in the midst of this magnificent but dauntingly mountainous setting. The red cloak of the Virgin, just off centre but aligned with castle, town and lowest point of the horizon, immediately catches our attention. Within its folds she swathes the Christ child. Joseph is straining to keep the recalcitrant donkey moving forward. They are dwarfed by the magnitude of the panorama which surrounds them and the dangers to come are all too apparent for they are approaching a yawning chasm (seen in the lower left corner) spanned by a decidedly frail bridge. Other travellers linger by the bridge — perhaps natural hazards are not the only threat to their safety.
1560 Titian: Rape of Europa, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
1565 Jacopo Tintoretto: Crucifixion, Venice, Scuola di San Rocco