Pieter Brueghel the Elder

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12 - 13
Pieter Brueghel the Elder
The Holy Family in the Snow

It was not the belief in Jesus Christ that Bruegel was criticizing in his pictures, but rather the Catholic Church.
For centuries past, churches and monasteries had been among the most important clients commissioning art. The Reformation put an end to this tradition, the Protestants considering the rich pictorial ornamentation of Catholic buildings to be symptoms of secularization, or even of a forbidden display of magnificence and power. Theological objections were also raised, albeit not by Luther but by Calvin. Maintaining that "every pictorial representation of God contradicts His nature", he stated that "it is sinful to give God visible form; to create graven images is to completely break away from the true God."
Bruegel worked with others on an altar in his early years, in 1550/51; we know this from documents, although the altar itself is lost. As far as can be ascertained, not one of his paintings was executed for a church. One reason for this may be seen in the political and religious situation at the time, Lutheran and Reformed Church communities being uninterested in such works and Catholics holding back - in those cases where they had actually been able to keep their buildings. Another reason was Bruegel's style, which was such as to exclude him from consideration by Catholics. The strategy of the Counter-Reformation, as formulated at the Council of Trent in 1545-63, required artists to portray saints in a way which emphasized their sainthood and clearly distinguished them from other mortals. Bruegel did the very opposite.
This is even true of a work which at first appears to correspond to Catholic requirements: The Adoration of the Kings (1564). Mary is depicted sitting in the centre of the picture, holding the Christ child on her lap. Her face is as beautiful as that of a young girl, quite capable of fulfilling the traditional Madonna ideal. One of her eyes is hidden, however; her posture is bowed; and the Christ child seems to be pulling back in fear. Furthermore, the face of the left-hand king - one of the saints after all - has very earthly features, while the brightly coloured robe of the right-hand king renders its wearer more prominent than Mary. The final straw - in the eyes of Counter-Reformation severity -is the depiction of Joseph: instead of giving himself over completely to the holy event, he is leaning towards an unknown person so that the latter may whisper something in his ear. One could reply that it is precisely through this act of whispering that respect is shown the Adoration. It is too human an act, however; it distracts the observer, and would undoubtedly have fallen victim to the religious censorship of art.
Bruegel painted the Adoration of the Christ child by the Three Kings or Magi three times; none of the works reveals the splendour and idealization considered appropriate in Catholic circles. The earliest painting, The Adoration of the Kings (between 1556 and 1562), which is in a poor state of preservation, is characterized by a large crowd of Netherlands and Middle Eastern people, the last, The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow (1567), by a natural event, namely by falling snow. This last version is also the boldest, the religious scene almost disappearing, integrated like some everyday occurrence into the life of a wintertime village.

The Adoration of the Kings

Bruegel depicts the Adoration as it could have been staged in a Passion play. It was admissible within the context of such plays that someone whisper something in Joseph's earnot, however, in the case of pictures, according to the guidelines laid down by the Counter-Reformation.

The Adoration of the Kings (detail)

The Adoration of the Kings
between 1556 and 1562

Unlike the other two depictions of the Adoration, this work was painted
not on wood but on canvas, and is in poor condition. It is the earliest of
the surviving Adorations. Bruegel has surrounded the central event with a
large crowd of people, dressed partly in Netherlands dress, partly in
oriental fashion.

The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow

Bruegel has shifted the Adoration from the centre to the left-hand edge of the picture, depicting it rather indistinctly behind a curtain of snow. The work is characterized not by the religious motif but by a natural event and the life of the people in a village in wintertime. It is possible that we have here the first painting in the history of European art to depict falling snow.

Landscape with the flight into Egypt

As is the case with many of his paintings, Bruegel has treated the biblical motif here as if it were merely of minor importance.


Criticism of the Catholic Church may have played a part here - directed not against the faith but against the institution, the clergy and their worldly power. This criticism is also apparent in the artist's selection of subjects. Bruegel painted no martyrs, no saints from the history of the Catholic Church, but only biblical figures -those, in other words, who were of significance for every Christian. It is possible that anti-Spanish feelings were also at work here. The Catholic Church was so inextricably linked with the worldly rule of Philip that to attack the Church was to attack the King. Bruegel filled the area of which the saints were deprived with the people and scenery of the Netherlands. Intentionally or not, Bruegel's pictures reflect the wish that the foreign rulers be deposed, and therefore reveal something of the process of emancipation taking place in the Netherlands provinces.

This is but one aspect among many. The fact that the painter's work should not be viewed from this angle alone is illustrated by two grisailles, The Death of the Virgin (c. 1564) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565). Each of the panels is restricted to its religious subject-matter. In the former, St. John, next to the fireplace, appears to be asleep. In his dream, he sees the dying Virgin, with the believers from all over the world streaming towards her. In the latter picture, Jesus is writing with His finger in the dust the famous sentence concerning the stone which should be thrown at the woman taken in adultery by "he that is without sin amongst you" (John 8:7). The two paintings are very singular. The absence of different colours - grisaille - is compensated for by almost supernatural lighting effects, similar to those which Rembrandt would employ again and again in the following century.

The Death of the Virgin
c. 1564

John the disciple, sleeping next to the fireplace on the left of the picture, is dreaming that the apostles and other saints have assembled around the bed of the dying Virgin. Bruegel is employing seemingly supernatural lighting effects here, such as would later be typical of Rembrandt's work.

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery

The woman whom the Pharisees have accused has been portrayed by Bruegel as a graceful figure in the centre of the picture. She represents one of the few female figures to be painted by Bruegel not as an earthy country woman but instead in accordance with the urban ideal of beauty.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony
c. 1550

This early painting is in the fantastic tradition of Hieronymus Bosch