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  Pieter Brueghel the Elder

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Pieter Brueghel the Elder
 
 
 
 
Village Life
 
 
 
The subjects most frequently treated by European painters in Bruegel's day and age were taken from the spheres of religion and classical antiquity. These included scenes from biblical history, repeatedly Christ on the cross, and - in Catholic realms - the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the martyrs, along with the heroes and gods of the Greeks and Romans. "Venus and Amor" or "Adam and Eve" became favourite subjects for painters from Cranach to Titian on account of the opportunities they represented for portraying beautiful bodies. A third group was concerned with the portraits of high-ranking personages and self-portraits. The buildings to be seen in these pictures were commonly palaces and town or city halls - magnificent edifices, in other words, not crofts and thatched houses, not such dwellings as would call to mind the arduous life in the country.
The only exception here was the Adoration of Christ by the shepherds or the Wise Men from the East. However, the stable buildings in such pictures were generally idealized, and had little in common with the painter's actual environment. It was only in the Netherlands that things differed in this respect. Many artists in this country incorporated their everyday milieu into their pictures, painting not only rich and important men but also nameless people - the peasants, the agricultural workers, their dwellings, their villages.


In his day, Bruegel was the most important of these painters displaying a pronounced realistic touch. It is true that he included a biblical scene in his painting of The Census at Bethlehem (1566); he depicted it so completely integrated into the pastoral life, however, that it can scarcely be made out at first glance. Mary on the donkey and Joseph in front of her differ neither in size nor in coloration from the other figures. The description of the village square struck the painter as being of greater urgency than the significance of the biblical characters. Bruegel selected an afternoon in winter, with the red sun already touching the horizon and the square full of people despite the cold. Such an outdoor life corresponded to everyday reality: while it was warmer in the houses, there was but little light indoors. Living conditions were cramped, all the members of a household often dwelling together in one single room. For these reasons, people in the 16th century spent more time on the streets and in the village square than in their houses, even in the north - a custom still followed today in southern countries. Children are enjoying themselves on the ice in Bruegel's painting; a hollow tree with a sign depicting a swan is serving as an open-air inn; and pigs are being slaughtered in the foreground, as was customary at the end of the year. The fact that this snowy day occurs before 24 December may be deduced from the account in Luke's Gospel, Chapter 2, in which Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem because the Emperor Augustus has ordered a census and everyone is to go to "his own town". Mary is in an advanced stage of pregnancy. The inn in the stable of which Jesus will be born could be the one in Bruegel's picture towards which Mary and Joseph are making.
A wreath indicates that the building is an inn or tavern. In Bruegel's painting, it also serves as the census-taking station. However, the painter has presumably taken not one of the rare registration actions but the collection of taxes as his source of inspiration: those standing in front of the window are paying their taxes, while the people behind the window-sill are receiving the coins and registering the amount in books. The office of tax collector was usually leased; however, the plaque next to the window with the Habsburg double eagle reveals in whose name the official is acting.



The Census at Bethlehem
1566

There was next to no lighting within houses, apart from that thrown by the fire in the grate; accordingly, children and adults alike conducted their lives out of doors, even when it was cold. In the left-hand foreground, a pig is being slaughtered, a customary event with the onset of winter. Alcohol is being distributed at a treeside inn in the background, while the fires along the walls have a double function, not only warming the people but also roasting corn.



The Census at Bethlehem (detail)
1566

The sun is setting over a Flemish village. The wreath hanging over a building in the left foreground is an inn sign; the plaque next to it displays the double eagle, the crest of the Habsburgs. Philip II in Madrid was of the House of Habsburg, and taxes are being collected here in his name.

Mary with the Christ child is sitting on a donkey, the ox visible behind her. Joseph is striding out in front of them in the direction of the inn where the tax collectors or census officials are. Otherwise, no one in Bruegel's depiction of a winter village square is interested in the biblical figures. No one pays them any attention; children are enjoying themselves on the ice with skates, tops, and a stool which has been pressed into use as a toboggan.

It is said that the financially flourishing Netherlands were required to find half of the taxes due from the huge Spanish Habsburg empire. The immensity of the sum gave rise to constant protests. Bruegel painted this peaceful picture in 1566; one year later Alba was to arrive, demanding additional contributions, a demonstrative act of oppression which would become one of the causes of the rebellion by the Netherlanders against Madrid.
Whenever Bruegel painted a village, he included a church in his depiction. This may be because of a wish on the part of the artist to comment in general terms on the importance of faith. It is more likely, however, that he painted or drew it every time because it represented a very real part of the village. The church was the community centre; it offered the possibility of coming together under one roof outside one's own cramped quarters, signalled the size and wealth of a village, performed not only a religious but also a social function.
The same was true of the graveyard. The engraving The Fair at Hoboken (1559) contains nothing of the gravity with which we enter graveyards today. Bruegel has depicted it as a general meeting-place. People are chatting, urinating, here and there even dancing. Almost incidentally, a procession is crowding through the church door, for the reason behind the origination of a fair is always a religious festival. The main area of the drawing is filled with people enjoying themselves, dancing, drinking, playing marbles or practising archery. The banner of the inn is billowing out for all to see. At the bottom edge of the picture, a man in fool's costume is leading two children by the hand. By including this figure, Bruegel is seeking to tell the observer that he is not only endeavouring to entertain with his portrayal of people enjoying themselves at a religious festival but also wishes to admonish him: Foolishness leads people astray.

 
 
 
 

A fool is also strolling through the centre of the painting The Fight between Carnival and Lent (1559), illuminating the way of an adult couple with his burning torch, although it is daylight - an indication of the "topsy-turvy" state of the world, topsy-turvy perhaps because Catholics, depicted as skinny Lent, and Protestants, suspected of being pleasure-hungry gluttons, are vigorously feuding with each other. Bruegel has surrounded them with a wealth of traditional scenes: children at play, cripples begging, fish-sellers, churchgoers with their stools, people dressed up for processions.


The Fight between Carnival and Lent
1559

The fat Lord of the Carnival astride the barrel is intended to represent the Protestants, the melancholy, lean figure with a beehive on his head the Catholics. Bruegel is caricaturing both equally harshly. In the middle of the picture, we again see a fool leading two people; he has lit his torch, even though it is still day -symptomatic of the topsy-turvy world.


The Fight between Carnival and Lent (detail)
1559


The Fight between Carnival and Lent (detail)
1559



The Fight between Carnival and Lent (detail)
1559

 
 
 


The Fight between Carnival and Lent (detail)
1559


The Fight between Carnival and Lent (detail)
1559


The Fight between Carnival and Lent (detail)
1559

The figure of the fool walking along in the centre of the picture reveals that Bruegel's interests lay beyond a mere depiction of communal life or carnival amusement. Some interpreters deduce from such pictures as this one that the painter was primarily a "teacher of the people". They look for the didactic message in every one of his works, treating each picture as a moralizing treatise. Thus, in the case of the painting portraying a winter-bound village on a frozen river with ice-skaters, Winter Landscape with a Bird-trap (1565), they are of the opinion that the blindness to danger of the birds under the converted door must be seen in connection with the foolishness of the people on the ice.
It is surely not by chance, they argue, that the two birds on the bush in the foreground, or the one in the top-right corner, are as big as the people on the ice: the picture must surely be intended as an admonition to general prudence.
Would the painter have hidden his warning so discreetly, however, if it had been so important to him? Or was it perhaps meant by the painter as a little game for those who are constantly seeking some prescription for life in every picture? Or, again, could it be that what we see here is merely the chance product of perspective?
The fact that so much has been pondered and written on moral messages in Bruegel's pictures is presumably due not least to problems of communication: it is easier to talk about morality than about art. That which renders a picture art cannot be described in words. The interpreter can give some indication regarding the selection of colours, for example, or the aesthetic function of some undergrowth in the foreground. He is unable to explain the artistic process - how the painter succeeded in conveying the variety of information contained in an actual winter landscape onto a piece of wood 38 by 56 centimetres large, in such a way that the colours and shapes give us the impression of a landscape spreading out quite naturally before our eyes -and, furthermore, how the painter uses his colours and shapes to produce a feeling of happiness in the observer.

Instead of attempting an explanation, van Mander, Bruegel's first biographer, cites a drastic comparison, transferring the artistic process of transformation into a bodily one. The comparison was prompted by Bruegel's mountains, van Mander writing that people said that Bruegel, "when he was in the Alps, swallowed all the mountains and rocks and spat them out again as painting boards."


Winter Landscape with a Bird-trap
1565

People are enjoying themselves on the ice; meanwhile, the birds are endangered through a door rigged to function as a deadfall. Since several of the birds have been painted as large as the people in the picture, some would interpret this work not only as depicting a winter landscape but also - primarily - as being intended as a warning to the observer to be on his guard against constant danger.


Winter Landscape with a Bird-trap (detail)
1565

 
 
 

 
 
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