Between 1608 and 1621, Brueghel was commissioned by Federico Borromeo to make four paintings on copper. The history of these Allegories of the Four Elements can be fully retraced in an abundant set of documents now in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. Earth, water, air and fire are the four elements that, from the time of Empedocles’ writings, were long considered to be at the base of all created matter. In Borromeo’s philosophical-theological view, these paintings went well beyond their secular significance and acquired a profound religious value, since Nature was the book written by God, so that man could rise up from Creation to its Creator. Unfortunately, only two of the four works – the Allegory of Fire and the Allegory of Water – are now in the Ambrosiana, because much of the Pinacoteca’s assets were taken to France after being plundered under Napoleon. The Allegory of Earth and the Allegory of Air are now in the Louvre, from which they have never been returned, in spite of the 1815 agreements.
The painting is remarkable for the richness of its natural landscape, it was sent by Brueghel to Cardinal Federico in 1614 and was the third in the series.