Pieter Brueghel the Elder

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Pieter Brueghel the Elder
Netherlandish Proverbs

Twelve Proverbs

These panels, joined together to create one picture, perhaps served originally as a kind of plate. The majority of the proverbs may also be found in the painting from 1559.

The same is true of Netherlandish Proverbs (1559). Here, too, the main axis leads from front left to back right; here, too, Bruegel has built in a divergence from perspective, in the form of the tarts on the roof, unexpectedly depicted head-on rather than foreshortened. Given the well-thought-out manner in which Bruegel painted, this can hardly be an error. Is he playing a game? Or is he consciously seeking to confuse?
Collecting proverbs was one of the many encyclopaedic undertakings in the 16th century. Erasmus of Rotterdam, the great humanist, began by publishing proverbs and the famous formulations of Latin authors in 1500. Flemish and German collections followed, while Rabelais' novel Pantagruel, with its description of an island of proverbs, appeared in 1564. By 1558, Bruegel had already painted his series of Twelve Proverbs, consisting of small, individual panels. His village of proverbs, however, was something apparently never attempted before; not a set of proverbs somehow strung together but a painting completely worked out in every detail.
More than a hundred proverbs and idiomatic expressions have been identified, many no longer in current usage - and many reflecting the considerably more direct language customary in that day and age! The majority describe stupid, immoral, crazy ways of behaviour. A devil is hearing confession in the pavilion that forms the focal point of the work; further to the right, a monk is mocking Christ and masking him with a beard; to his left, a woman is hanging a blue cloak over her husband's shoulders, signifying that she is deceiving him; a globe is hanging in front of the wall of the house, its cross pointed downwards to indicate the "topsy-turvy world" with which the painter was concerned: as with the children's games, he was motivated here not only by a passion for collecting but also by a particular, sceptical view of his contemporaries.


Netherlandish Proverbs

More than a hundred proverbs and idiomatic expressions have been identified, describing "topsy-turvy" ways of behaviour. This explains the other name occasionally given the painting, that of The Topsy-Turvy World. While one fellow lets the world dance upon his thumb (to his tune), another is unable to stretch from one loaf of bread to another - in other words, he is no good with money. If you spill your porridge, you will never be able to spoon it all back into the bowl: if you try to open your mouth wider than an oven door, you are overestimating your abilities.


Netherlandish Proverbs



1 There the roof is tiled with tarts (a land of plenty; a fool's paradise; "Land of Cockaigne").
2 To marry over the broomstick (to go through a quasi-marriage ceremony; to live in sin under one roof is convenient but shameful).
3 To stick out the broom (the masters are not at home; "When the cat's away, the mice will play").
4 He looks through his fingers (he can afford to be indulgent because he is sure of his profit).
5 There hangs the knife (a challenge).
6 There stand the wooden shoes (to wait in vain).
7 They lead each other by the nose (they are tricking each other).
8 The die is cast (it is decided).
9 Fools get the best cards
10 It depends on the fall of the cards.
11 He shits on the world (he despises the world).
12 The world upside down (the opposite of the way things should be; "It's a topsy-turvy world").
13 To pull something through the eye (the hole in the handle) of a pair of scissors (to make a dishonest profit); or: an eye for an eye.


25 She can even tie the Devil to a pillow (spiteful obstinacy overpowers even the Devil himself).
26 He is a pillar-biter (a religious hypocrite).
27 She carries fire in one hand and water in the other (she is two-faced and deceitful).
28 a) To fry the whole herring for the sake of the roe ('To throw a sprat to catch a herring", that is, to sacrifice a trifle to gain something substantial).
b) His herring does not fry here (things are not going according to plan).
c) To get the lid on the head (to have to make pay for the damages; "To be left holding the bag").
29 a) He has more in him than an empty herring (many things often have a deeper significance than superficial observation would suggest; "There is more to it than meets the eye").
b) The herring hangs by its own gills (everyone must bear the consequences of his own mistakes).
30 To sit between two stools in the ashes (to miss an opportunity; to fail due to indecisiveness; 'To fall between two stools").
31 What can smoke do to iron? (It is useless to try to change the existing order).
32 The spindle falls into the ashes (the business at hand has failed).
33 To find the dog in the pot. When one lets in the dog, it will get into the larder (pot) (to have one's trouble for nothing; to come too late to prevent loss or damage)
34 Here the sow pulls out the bung (poor management; negligence will be punished).
35 He runs his head against a stone wall (to pursue the impossible recklessly and impetuously).
36 To be driven into armour (to be enraged, angered; 'To be up in arms over something").
37 To bell the cat (When one plans something which everyone finds out about, one's undertaking will turn out badly).
39 An iron-biter (a big mouth).
41 He always gnaws on one bone (endless, futile chore; or, to continually repeat everything; "To be always harping on the same string").
42 There the scissors hang out (symbol of pick-pocketing; a place of cheating and fleecing: "a clip joint").
46 Shear them but do not skin them (do not pursue your advantage at any price).


14 Leave at least one egg in the nest (to keep a "nest egg"; "Save something for a rainy day").
15 He has toothache behind his ears (possibly: to fool others by malingering).
16 a) He is pissing against the moon (to try to do the impossible; 'To bark against the moon" or 'To piss against the wind").
b) He has pissed against the moon (his enterprise has failed).
17 There is a hole in his roof.
18 An old roof needs a lot of patching up.
19 The roof has laths (there are eavesdroppers).
20 There hangs the pot (in the topsy-turvy world the chamber pot instead of the jug serves as an inn sign).
21 To shave the fool without lather (to make a fool of someone; "To take someone for a ride").
22 It is growing out of the window (it cannot be kept secret; 'Truth will out").
23 Two fools under one hood ("Folly loves company").
24 a) To shoot a second bolt to find the first (foolish, misdirected perseverance).
b) To shoot all one's bolts (to use all one's ammunition at once is unwise because there is none left when really needed).
82 He plays on the pillory (having been put to shame, one should not attract attention to oneself; "People who live in glass houses should not throw stones"; also, to make an unjustified presumption).
105 a) He is running as if his backside were on fire (he finds himself in great distress).
b) He who eats fire, shits sparks (whoever undertakes a dangerous venture should not be surprised at its outcome).
106 a) Where the gate is open, the pigs will run into the corn (everything is upside down when there is no supervision).
b) Where the corn decreases, the pig increases (in weight) ("One man's loss is another man's gain").

38 Armed to the teeth.
40 The hen-feeler ("To count one's chickens before they are hatched").
43 He speaks with two mouths (two-faced, deceitful; "To speak out of both sides of one's mouth").
44 One shears sheep, the other pigs (one has the advantage, the other the disadvantage; or, one lives in luxury, the other in need; "rich man, poor man").
45 Great cry and little wool ("Much ado about nothing").
47 Patient as a lamb.
48 a) One winds on the distaff what the other spins (to spread malicious gossip).
b) Watch out that a black dog does not come in between (things could go wrong; or, where two women are together, a barking dog is not needed).
49 He carries the day out in baskets (he wastes his time; "To set forth the sun with a candle").
50 To hold a candle to the Devil (to make friends in all quarters and to flatter everyone; to ingratiate oneself indiscriminately).
51 He confesses to the Devil (to give away secrets to one's enemy).
57 He fills the well after the calf has drowned (measure taken only when an accident has occurred).
63 She puts the blue mantle on her husband (she deceives him; "To place horns on his head").


52 An ear-blower (a tattle-tale or gossip; "To fan rumours").
69 a) He catches fish with his bare hands (this shrewd fellow profits from the work of others by taking fish out of the nets which they have cast), b) To throw a smelt to catch a cod (same meaning as 28a).
83 He falls from the ox onto the ass (to make a bad deal; to fall on hard times).
84 One beggar pities the other standing in front of the door.
85 Anyone can see through an oak plank if there is a hole in it.
86 a) He wipes his arse on the door (to make light of everything).
b) He goes around shouldering a burden.
87 He kisses the (door) ring (insincere, exaggerated respect).
88 He fishes behind the net (to miss an opportunity, wasted effort).
89 Big fish eat little fish.
91 He throws his money into the water (to squander money; 'To throw one's money out of the window"; "Money down the drain").
92 They both shit through one hole (inseparable friends).
93 It hangs like a privy over a ditch (a clear-cut matter).
94 He wants to kill two flies with one stroke (however, none will be caught; excessive ambition will be punished).
95 She gazes at the stork (she wastes her time).
96 To recognize a bird by its feathers
97 He hangs his cloak according to the wind (he adapts his viewpoint to conform to the circumstance at hand; "He trims his sails to the wind"; "He swims with the tide").
98 He tosses feathers in the wind (all his efforts are for nothing; to work unsystematically).
107 He does not care whose house is on fire as long as he can warm himself at the blaze (he seizes every opportunity to further his advantage).
108 A wall with cracks will soon collapse.
113 He drags the block (a deceived suitor; to slave away at a senseless task).

53 The fox and the crane entertain each other (Bruegel uses a motif familiar from Aesop's Fables: two deceivers always keep their own advantage in mind; the deceiver deceived).
54 What is the good of a beautiful plate when there is nothing on it? ("Gold plate does not fill your belly").
55 He is a skimming ladle or an egg-beater (a sponger, a parasite).
56 To chalk it up (it will not be forgotten; the debt must be repaid; "To be in a person's book").
57 He fills the well after the calf has drowned (measure taken only when an accident has occurred).
58 He has the world spinning on his thumb (everyone dances to his tune; "He has got the world on a string").
59 To put a spoke in someone's wheel (to put an obstacle in the way).
60 He has to stoop if he wants to get on in the world (whoever is ambitious must be devious and unscrupulous).
61 He ties a flaxen beard to the face of Christ (deceit often masquerades under the guise of piety).
62 To cast roses (pearls) before swine (Matthew 7:6; effort wasted on the unworthy).
64 The pig is stabbed through the belly (a foregone conclusion; it is irrevocable; "Things done cannot be undone").
65 Two dogs over one bone seldom agree (to quarrel bitterly over one and the same thing; "a bone of contention"; image of cupidity and jealousy; envy).
66 To sit on hot coals (to be anxious and impatient; "To be on needles and pins").
67 a) The meat on the spit must be basted.
b) It is healthy to piss on the fire.
c) His fire is pissed out (his fire has been extinguished; he is completely discouraged).
68 There is no turning a spit with him (he is uncooperative).


90 He cannot bear to see the sun shine on the water (my neighbour's property bothers me and I am annoyed at the sun smiling in the water; envy, jealousy).
99 The best straps are cut from someone else's leather (it is easy to dispose of someone else's property).
100 The pitcher goes to the water (the well) until it finally breaks (everything has its limits).
101 He holds an eel by the tail (a difficult undertaking sure to fail).
102 It is ill to swim against the stream (one who revolts and is unwilling to comply with commonly held rules has a hard time of it).
103 He throws his cowl over the fence (he discards the familiar without knowing whether or not he can make it in his new surroundings).
104 This proverb has not been identified with certainty. The following meanings are possible:
a) He sees bears dancing (he is famished).
b) Wild bears prefer each other's company (it is a disgrace if one cannot get along with one's peers).
108 A wall with cracks will soon collapse.
109 It is easy to sail before the wind (under optimal conditions one succeeds easily).
110 He keeps his eye on the sail (he is alert; "To know which way the wind blows").
111 a) Who knows why geese go barefoot? (there is a reason for everything).
b) If I am not meant to be their keeper, I'll let geese be geese.
112 Horse droppings are not figs (don' tbe fooled).
113 He drags the block (a deceived suitor; to slave away at a senseless task).
114 Fear makes the old woman trot (need brings out unexpected qualities).
115 He shits on the gallows (he is not deterred by any penalty; a gallows bird who will come to a bad end).
116 Where the carcass is, there fly the crows.
117 If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch (when an ignoramus leads others, they will come to grief).
118 The journey is not yet over when one can discern church and steeple (the goal is reached only when one has fully completed one's task). One further proverb relates to the sun in the sky: Everything, however finely spun, finally comes to the sun (in the end, nothing remains hidden or unrequited).

59 To put a spoke in someone's wheel (to put an obstacle in the way).
61 He ties a flaxen beard to the face of Christ (deceit often masquerades under the guise of piety).
66 To sit on hot coals (to be anxious and impatient; "To be on needles and pins").
70 He falls through the basket (rejected suitor; to be turned down flat; to fail).
71 He is suspended between heaven and earth (he has got himself into an awkward situation and does not know what he should do).
72 She takes the hen's egg and lets the goose egg go (to make a bad choice as a result of one's greediness).
73 He yawns against the oven; or, he who is determined to out-yawn the oven will have to yawn for a long time (he tries to open his mouth wider than an oven door, that is, he overestimates his ability; "He bites off more than he can chew"; or, it is futile to set oneself up against those who are stronger).
74 He can barely reach from one loaf to the other (he cannot live within his budget).
75 a) He is looking for the hatchet (he is trying to find an excuse).
b) Here he is with his lantern (finally he has an opportunity to let his light shine - to show how smart he his).
76 A hatchet with a handle (the whole thing? -the meaning is unclear).
77 A hoe without a handle (something useless? -of unclear meaning; the object is a dough-scraper).
78 He who has spilt his porridge cannot scrape it all up again (once damage is done, it cannot be completely undone; "It is no use crying over spilt milk").
79 They pull to get the longest end (a tug-of-war; everyone seeks his own advantage).
80 He hangs on tightly; rather: Love is on the side where the money bag hangs.
81 a) He stands in his own light.
b) No one looks for others in the oven who has not been in there himself (only he who is wicked himself thinks ill of others; "Do not judge others by your own standards").