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Egypt in the Alps

Egypt never looked like this

But it doesn’t look much like Egypt, does it? Rather, it looks suspiciously like the Alps. In fact, when Bruegel travelled to Italy after his apprenticeship (as was standard practise for Northern artists at the time), he took an extended, circuitous route through the Alps where he stopped to make a series of drawings of the landscape, which were subsequently issued as prints. He was clearly fascinated by the landscape, and reused elements from his drawings when he painted this picture.

Take a moment to let your eyes roam through the dazzling landscape. It represents the culmination of the Flemish landscape tradition. Such landscapes are referred to as ‘world landscapes’ because they depict not a self-contained, localised segment of landscape but instead appear to include a substantial portion of the earth itself - a vast panorama with suggestions of infinity. This painting perfectly exemplifies the conventions of the world landscape: it contains craggy rock formations, mountains, hills, ravines, forests, valleys, meadows, water, peninsulas, castles, villages, boats and more - a virtual encyclopaedia of the earth’s features. The expansiveness of the land, and its majesty and variety, are almost overwhelming. The sense of infinity is increased by the elevated viewpoint - we look down and are able to survey the panorama - and by Bruegel’s use of brown in the foreground, and green-blue in the middleground and distance, with the colours becoming paler in the furthest regions, suggesting atmospheric recession over a vast distance. He also achieves this by faintly painting the ghostly form of further mountains on the very horizon, as far as the eye can see, suggesting that the landscape just keeps going on forever. The river winding its way into distance provides an encouraging path for our eye to follow it into the horizon.

Although the individual details are meticulously realistic, such as the carefully painted foliage and trees in the right foreground, the view as a whole has an air of the contrived and fantastic about it. Its contrived nature is emphasised by the framing devices bracketing each side of the composition: the rock formation on the left and tall tree on the right.

Despite the signs of human habitation - note the castle on an island connected to the mainland by a tiny bridge, the hamlet jutting out into the water (in which you can even make out the individual buildings, despite their minuteness), the tiny boats on the water around it and the spectre-like form of a castle rising up on the shoreline on the opposite side of the river - the region seems inaccessible. We - and the Holy Family - are separated from it by fearsome, rocky brown terrain in the foreground, which acts as a barrier. It is not clear how this region relates to the low-lying area just beyond and below it, but there must be a terrifically steep drop between the two regions that we cannot see. This separation is further emphasised by the difference in colour. It is also not clear where the Holy Family came from or where they are headed – they seem to be about to descend a treacherously steep drop. The placement of the travellers in the lower left corner invites speculation that this is where the Family is headed. This serves to increase our wonder and awe of both the landscape and of the Holy Family and their plight.

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