Art has been a powerful tool to reconstruct what has happened to glaciers and mountains around the planet in the last ~ 700 years. In addition to allowing a graphic window to the past, art has made it possible to understand how the perception of Western society regarding cold and mountainous environments on Earth evolved. In this article we will briefly review the contributions of painting and photography to the study and perception of mountain glaciers between the 14th and 19th centuries.

Mountains and glaciers like the devil’s abode

During the 14th and 17th centuries, the high peaks were places reserved for supernatural beings. In Europe people were afraid of the Alps due to superstition and religious beliefs that circled the mountains. For they were the high peaks where demons and dragons resided. This can be exemplified very well through the Gothic paintings of the time. In the early 14th century, the Italian Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255–1319) portrayed the high peaks as the abode of Satan. Di Buoninsegna took as testimony the biblical passages, where it is indicated that Christ was tempted by the devil on the mountain of the Judean desert. This passage served the Italian to inspire his work called “the temptation of Christ on the mountain” (1308 – 11). In this way the mountains and high peaks represented the temptation and therefore the conflict for the Christian religion. And in the face of temptation and sin, the punishment is imminent.


“The temptation of Christ on the mountain” / © Di Buoninsegna.


300 years later something similar happened in Chile. In 1640, in the middle of the war between the Mapuches and the Spanish, the Llaima volcano (it is also said that it was the Villarrica volcano) had an exceptional eruption that, according to the French naturalist Claudio Gay (1847), “ reached the eternal snows and made boil the fish of the rivers ” . The eruption was portrayed by the Jesuit Alonso de Ovalle in his work ” Historic relationship of the Kingdom of Chile”(1646). According to the Jesuit’s report to the Spanish crown, the eruption meant the expulsion of the demon from the indigenous lands, thus fulfilling part of the work of religious conversion. On the other hand, Claudio Gay believed that the eruption made the Spaniards feel that both heaven and earth were being attacked, thus seeing themselves at a total disadvantage. Although a group of Spaniards reported it as a sign of victory, it is also believed that the volcanic event was interpreted as a punishment of nature towards the warring sides. Some believe that the volcanic cataclysm could have persuaded the Spanish and the Mapuches to sign the council of Quilín (1641), a parliament that sought to establish peace between the parties in conflict.


Eruption of the Llaima or Villarrica volcano / © Alonso de Ovalle, 1640.


The perception based on divinity towards the high peaks did not change if not until the 18th century, since after the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, the belief system of European society and the Latin American elite was profoundly modified. This affected the dissipation of religious prejudices towards the mountains and an opening to know and colonize landscapes that were previously closed.

Glaciers in the early days of modern science

In the middle of the 18th century, and within the framework of the construction of national states, explorations for scientific purposes were carried out towards the glacial landscapes of Europe. Among those explorers, the Swiss geologist and explorer Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740-1799) stands out, who aroused the interest of citizens in the Alps – and especially Mont Blanc – through stories and illustrations of glaciers that appeared in his book “Voyages dans les Alpes”(1780). After Saussure, Mont Blanc became a focus of social interest. People wanted to know the landscapes described by the scientist. The dissemination of images and accounts of Saussure’s explorations made Mont Blanc the most popular and best-documented mountain in Europe during the 19th century. The explorer’s stories and paintings have been used to learn about the evolution of glaciers in the French, Italian and Swiss Alps.


Above: Mont Blanc in “Voyages dans les Alpes”, of Saussure, 1780 / below: © P. Imhof, 2009.


On the other side of the ocean, scientific explorations were also taking place that used art to portray mountains and glaciers. The German explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) aroused social interest – particularly from the European elite – about high mountain landscapes around the world, after traveling the Alps and the Andes (and later the Himalayas) gathering information for your total integration projectof knowledge. At the very birth of modern sciences, Humboldt postulated that the entire natural system was closely related and that, therefore, these relationships had to be deciphered to understand the balance of the cosmos. Using the comparative method, Humboldt generated and at the same time graphed scientific information on the landscape through an innovative pictorial format. His masterpiece, “Naturgemälde” (1807), which according to Humboldt himself, is an attempt to capture “nature as a living totality” or “a microcosm” on a page. Naturgemälde saw the light after Humboldt’s expedition to the Ecuadorian Chimborazo (6,260 masl) in 1802.


In von Humboldt’s “Naturgemälde” (1807) there is information on temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, animal and plant species according to altitude. For many, this type of graphic expression of knowledge marks a before and after in science. About 200 years after Humboldt’s visit to Chimborazo, Naturgemälde is still used to understand how the height of the snow line and the vegetation cover of the massif have varied.


Another notable scientist who used art to communicate his findings was the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873). Agassiz was the one who coined the “Theory of Glaciers”, a theory that assumes that glaciers have been more extensive in the past and that high mountain landscapes owe their shapes to the work of extinct ice. Agassiz generally traveled with the French painter Joseph Bettannier, who was tasked with rendering Agassiz’s geological observations in an attractive and readable format for anyone. The works of Saussure, Humboldt and Agassiz, account for the virtuous relationship between glaciers, art and science. Also, of course, they allow us to glimpse the wealth that exists in the work carried out between different areas of knowledge.

Glacier Paintings in Romantic Realism

The works of Saussure and Humboldt marked the rise of the European idealist-romantic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries. This movement brought together intellectuals, scientists, artists and politicians who questioned the alienation and distancing of the human being from nature. Likewise, the romantic intellectuals criticized imperialist morality and the environmental, urban and population degradation that was carried out by industrial development. In this way painters such as Caspar Wolf (Switzerland, 1735-1783), Jean Antoine Linck (France, 1766-1843) or Samuel Birmann (Switzerland, 1793-1847) went to the mountains and particularly to glacial landscapes to find a new aesthetic that served as inspiration for his works.

The works of the Romantic painters were characterized by having a dramatic realism that extolled the magnificence of nature in contrast to the human condition. The romantic painters gave relevance to the dimension and luminosity of the glaciers and mountains. Generally these landscapes were contrasted with the size and fragility of the people. The quality and realism of the works of the romantics, prompted painters of this aspect to be invited to most of the exploration campaigns of the incipient nation-states, since the rulers wanted to portray the conquests of new horizons and enhance the beauties of the territory. Thus, romantic art played an important role in promoting a naturalistic sensibility, in education and even in the configuration of national identities through his paintings and engravings.


Mer de glace, close to Mont Blanc / © JA Linck ~ 1804.


Front of the Grindelwald glacier, Switzerland / © Samuel Birmann, 1829.


The realism of romantic paintings has been used today to reconstruct almost in detail the behavior of glaciers during the last ~ 500 years in Europe. Thanks to the paintings of Wolf, Linck or Birmann, today it is known that the European glaciers had several advances and retreats between the 16th and 19th centuries. In fact, several of these paintings have made it possible to study in depth the glacial fluctuations that affected Europe during the so-called Little Ice Age (1300 to 1850). The romantic paintings have allowed us to know the changes in the landscape generated by the sustained disappearance of the glacier cover since 1850.


Above: unknown author between 1840 and 1850, Rosenlaui glacier, Switzerland / Below: © Hans Fernández, 2019.


Invention of photography and glaciers

With the appearance of the photographic camera during the 19th century, the capture of images of glacial landscapes became massive and took new directions. The representation and meaning given to glaciers in the Romantic era changed and became increasingly closer to a geopolitical and market sense. The complicity between power, art and glacial landscapes reached the point where Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenia de Montijo wanted to make a symbolic ascent to Mont Blanc to commemorate the reunification of Savoy with France in 1860. At that time they were already there available the first cameras, which guaranteed accuracy with respect to registration. The brothers Louis Bisson Frères and Auguste Bisson Frères, two of the best-known photographers of the time, they accompanied the royal couple and their sixty guides to portray the iconic moment. However, Napoleon and the Empress did not achieve their goal. Despite the failure, the Bisson Frères brothers did not give up and returned to Mont Blanc on a second expedition the same year. The images taken by the Bisson Frères began the photographic documentation of the Alpine glaciers.


Pyramid of the Empress, Mer de Glace, France. Photograph taken during the failed ascent of Napoleon III and Eugenie / © Louis Auguste Bisson Frères and Auguste-Rosalie Bisson Frères, 1860.


Photograph of the Album Ascension au Mont Blanc , 1860. Second expedition of the Bisson Frères brothers


Like the paintings, the photographs are an excellent record for comparing the change of glaciers over time. Today, photography remains a valuable resource for studying and photographing glaciers. One of the most common techniques to understand the change of the ice is to compare old photographs of glaciers with the current situation. This technique only requires finding the relatively exact point of the reference photograph. These records, if found in a systematic way, allow us to understand the rate of retreat of the ice and changes in the morphology of the mountains.


Retreat of the Matterhorn glacier on the Swiss side / Left: © Hans Fernández, 2019 / Right: Bisson Frères brothers, 1862.


Unfortunately in Latin America, and particularly in Chile, we lack an abundance of photographs taken in the late 19th or early 20th century. But there are exceptions. As is the case of some such notable explorers as Father Alberto de Agostini, who recorded Patagonia landscapes with his camera at the beginning of the 20th century. Agostini’s photographs today have been used to reconstruct the change of glaciers in the southern region. The photographs and objects of exploration of the religious are kept in the Salesiano Maggiorino Borgatello Museum in Punta Arenas. Despite Agostini’s records, there is still a gap of information to fill throughout the national territory regarding the last hundreds of years of glaciers and mountains in Chile. The challenge is therefore

Art, through painting and photography, have been and continue to be a fundamental ally in the knowledge and dissemination of what is happening with glaciers around the globe. Thanks to paintings, today we know in some detail what happened to the European ice in the last ~ 700 years. We can also know how the perception of western society regarding glaciers and their mountainous environments has evolved. During the last 100 years the massification of photography and its focus on glacier and mountain environments, have managed to reconstruct in detail the behavior of the ice and communicate to the majority of the population what happens in remote places, thus transforming the role of glaciers in the imagination and collective consciousness.

Today, given the marked retreat of the glaciers, it is believed necessary to resume collaborative work between artists and scientists in order to communicate and sensitize the population to the transformations that the planet’s cold landscapes have had in recent years. Perhaps, and as happened in the past, the joint work between art and science will once again generate a social and political impact regarding the conception of ice and its landscapes.



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  • Location:  Grindelwald Glacier, Switzerland. Link