Exploring the Landscape as Theatre Metaphor

 This is a Draft!..... Additions Pending. 


      The idea of theatre as a metaphor for landscape is explored in depth by geographers Daniels and Cosgrove in Spectacle and Text [1]. The following are some excerpts of their Essay (in the context of the XV-XVI century):


                   In that period theatre itself had the meaning, not only of a playhouse but also of a conspectus, a place, region or text in               which phenomena are presented together for public understanding.

      Not by mere coincidence, Shakespeare theater was named The Globus and Adam Ortelius great world Atlas of 1570 was named Teatrus Orbis Terrarium… Ortelius intimate friend, Pieter Brueghel adopted the Ptolemaic perspective to paint landscape as a global stage upon which human life was acted out.

         Such a Ptolemaic perspective arises from Ptolemy’s hierarchy of knowledge: cosmography, geography and chorography …Theatre as a mirror to the greater world was a common metaphor for revealing order in the microcosm.

               The noted art historian, E.H. Gombrich, wrote that, for  Pieter Brueghel              

    "landscape was a global stage upon which human life was acted out."  


   For me, one of the most noteworthy examples of Gombrich's observation is the painting reproduced below:

                                                                                        Procession to Calvary 

                                                                                                                      Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1567?) 

                                                                                                                              KuntHistorisches Museum,vienna          

          For reasons we can only guess,  Brueghel insisted in picturing momentous events such as these, as taking place virtually unnoticed by the people which witnessed them. (The same trick is played on us by Brueghel in The Fall of IcarusThe Slaughter of the Inocents or Numbering at Bethelem.) In this case what he depicted was an scene of townsfolk and peasants having “a day out” , children playing and running around, all under the watchful guard of mounted soldiers in brilliant red coats.  Where is Jesus amidst all this rigmarole? You have to strain your eyes to see him, carrying the cross, somewhere in the middle of the painting: a small figure in a dark grey robe; his presence seemsingly ignored by the crowd.


     In this painting, as in many others of that period, Brueghel is masterfully building up “a ploy within a ploy” where Here and There overlap, as is common in certain theatre plays . One is the representation of the way to the crucifixion, supposed to happen in a remote land; an event that took place There and Then. The other is the representation of Flemish commoners closely guarded by Spanish Caballeros; an event that may have happened Here and Now, at the time and place that Brueghel painted this picture. (see footnote).

        The landscape in this painting, as in a stage design in theatre. is intended to follow and reinforce the action; the scenario in the left part of the picture is lush green, pastoral; progressing to the right with the movement of the crowd. It changes slowly, becoming more and more devoid of vegetation and culminates in the barren, inhospitable promontory where the crucifixion is going to take place. The sky above also changes gradually from left to right: a clear diaphanous sky, slowly changes into a more clouded and stormy one, as  as we progress rightward to the place where the  crucifiction will  take place.

            Brueghel had an impressive mastery of landscape painting. The landscape here is not a mere background but has been designed in exquisite detail as may be judged by the top left section of the picture shown below:



   Undulating hills leading to the horizon and to a bright sky; a walled town in front (an imagined Jerusalem?). This pastoral landscape is somewhat broken by the  tall barren rock. The rock with the windmill on top is an example of  a common device used by painters of the time to create a “cosmic landscape”, a link between earth below and heaven above.

Historical Background:

                    To understand the script of the story represented above, we have to use some historical background. The following are excerpts, from Jacques Lassaigne, La Peinture Flamande, Skira, Geneve, (1958) (my translation)


  " Because of being so intimately engaged with daily life, Brueghel could not feel indifference towards the bloody events that were taking place in his country. The attitude of the armies that Charles V of Spain had sent to take part in the war against France, arose a violent movement of popular opposition in Flanders, exacerbated by the intransigence of Philip II , who strengthned the powers of the catholic inquisitors to combat the Calvinist heresies (1556).  Bueghel choose his side: the painter of popular customs became as well the painter of the Resistance. From then on a number of his paintings overtly alluded the political situation and exposed the Spanish occupation of his land". " In the Ascension or Procession to Calvary  he describes the scene for preparations to yet another round of capital executions." (During the confrontations hundreds of  patriots were arrested, tortured and left to die in the woodden poles crowned with rondelles which are profusely seen in the picture).



    Add more about the painting from articles in My Docs. List 

    Add Bergson's "identification with the characters" as a form of understanding landscape experience and, in this connection, the spectatorial view (the miller or us, where Brueghel stood) contrasted with individuals in the crowd (the phenomenological view of landscapes). Use stills from The Mill and the Cross and even some videos of the film. 

     Add Ollwig's ideas about the scenography of the masques and excerpts from his article and the image below: 


02-010482 RMN cropped 

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