I now have a collection of some 300 or so images of artworks containing mountains and produced in Europe between 1500 and 1800, around 60 images of mountains from Timothy Pont's maps of Scotland (a mere fraction of the total number), and an increasingly foggy head. I have a firm belief in the value of writing as a tool not just for writing up polished conclusions but also for clarifying half-formed thoughts and reflections. So, I thought I would come on here and share a few of my initial thoughts about visualisations of mountains in the early modern period.
Mountains and Religious
I organised my search results (on Artstor, the main focus of my first primary source fly-by) in chronological order, and one of the first things that struck me was the preponderance of sixteenth century religious images which featured mountains in the background. To the right here I've selected a very few of the many examples of Virgin and Child paintings featuring mountains, but other significant Biblical moments also appeared with mountains; the Crucifixion, Ascension, and so on.
It has also occurred to me that mountains in such an artistic context may also point to other Christian associations with mountains - after all, many key incidents, both in the Old and New Testaments, involved mountains; the Ark came to rest upon Mount Ararat, Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from the summit of Mount Sinai, and so on. More relevant to artworks relating to the life of Jesus, the Devil tempted him to throw himself down (to the rescue of angels) from a mountain-top during his forty days in the wilderness, the Transfiguration took place on a mountain, and Jesus of course gave one of his best known sermons upon the Mount 'of Beatitudes' (physical location unclear). I wonder if mountains are being used in the backdrop of these images showing the first moments of Jesus' life as a sort of short-hand for the challenges and experiences that he would have in similar landscapes throughout his life. It's also worth emphasising that the concept of 'wilderness' (which historians often treat as very similar to mountains in terms of supposed historical attitudes) was not necessarily a negative one in the early modern Christian tradition; both mountains and other 'wild spaces' could be the settings for highly significant events.
'The Invention of Landscape Art', and Evidence for Mountain Activities
Another claim that is often associated with the claim that 'mountain gloom' gave way to 'mountain glory' only in the eighteenth century is the canard that the painting of landscapes for their own sake came about at a similarly late date; the implication being that until people started to appreciate landscapes, particularly mountainous ones, they didn't bother to paint or otherwise depict them. My burgeoning counter-argument is that, if numerous earlier 'landscape paintings' can be identified, then perhaps we ought to reconsider the stark claim that appreciation of the landscape was a modern invention. One problem is, of course, what historians define as 'landscape paintings'; the underlying argument is that the landscape has to be the only subject of a painting for it to qualify as a landscape painting. (NB - these are arguments that I have found either implied or explicitly made in historical discussions of the experience of the landscape - not in the work of art historians. Stepping into that whole new historiography is my task for next week!)
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So, I'm not entirely sure if the numerous images I've found would qualify as paintings of 'landscape for its own sake', but I have certainly come across very many paintings which contain mountains as the dominant element of the composition. Many of these paintings also feature both signs of human habitation (for example cottages, farms, or castles), and people - either existing within the mountain landscape or even, as in the case of the drawing shown to the left here, at the top of or on their way to the top of a mountain.
Feeling my way...
As is probably clear, I'm definitely still feeling my way when it comes to utilising and analysing these sorts of sources, but I'm certainly finding it thought-provoking and exciting to get down to business collecting and collating them. My next group of sources after artworks is, if possible, even trickier - early modern maps! More on that anon...