Pieter Brueghel the Elder
Not only Peasants
We may learn a great deal about an artist by identifying the
things he does not paint. As far as we are aware, Bruegel
painted no portraits on commission, nor - even more
significant - any nudes. The nude human body had been a
favourite subject since the Renaissance. Artists vied with
each other in their search for the perfect body, and young
painters in the 16th century were advised to construct an
ideal figure from the particularly beautiful limbs of
different persons, that they might thereby "achieve a
harmony such as Nature only seldom affords."16 People should
be more perfect than Nature, for - as one argument ran - man
is made in God's image, and it is the task of the artist to
bring out this similarity.
In Bruegel's art, by contrast, the only naked beings are
demons. His people are dressed and often so wrapped up that
their bodies are quite unrecognizable - a far cry from the
well-proportioned or elegantly stretched figures of the
Italians and their followers in Spain and the north.
Of the portraits ascribed to him, only one is indisputably
by Bruegel: the Head of a Peasant Woman (after 1564). This
work, like with many figures in his other paintings, reveals
his great talent for capturing faces. We may be sure that
Bruegel did not lack requests for portraits, the newly
wealthy citizens being all too eager to have themselves and
their families immortalized in this manner. However, he was
evidently unwilling to bother himself with that sort of
Head of a Peasant Woman
Bruegel painted no
commissioned portraits, nor any of prominent contemporaries.
He was uninterested in any cult of personality. However,
this portrait of a peasant woman reveals just how capable he
was of portraying faces with highly individual features.
The emphasis upon the
importance of the individual, which emerged in the
Renaissance did not fit in with his artistic concept.
Indeed, Bruegel often hid the faces of the figures in his
drawings and paintings, rendering them unrecognizable as
individuals. Of the six persons in the foreground of the
drawing Summer (1568), only one face is visible, and that
foreshortened; in The Beekeepers and the Birdnester (c.
1568), the observer feels it was precisely this display of
anonymity which so attracted Bruegel.
A similar tendency may be observed in his biblical figures.
He pushes them to one side, or hides them between secular
figures of the same size. Thus we encounter Mary and Joseph
in the village square, St. John the Baptist with Christ in a
crowd of people, and the Adoration of the Kings behind a
curtain of falling snow. Over 30 of some 45 pictures by (or
attributed to) Bruegel are characterized by Nature, by the
village and its peasants; the anonymous representatives of
the rural lower stratum become the principal characters in
No painter before him had dared produce such works.
Contemporary art generally regarded peasants as figures of
mockery, considering them stupid, gluttonous, drunken, and
prone to violence. It is as such that they appear in
satirical poems, tales, and Shrovetide plays: as a
well-known negative type, an object of laughter. They were
used by authors to amuse the reader, and also to warn him to
beware of bad qualities and wrong behaviour.
Here, too, Bruegel has
avoided depicting people as individuals, hiding or
foreshortening the faces and concentrating upon the human
body at work.
The Beekeepers and the Birdnester
Bruegel will have found a
special attraction in the opportunity offered him by the
beekeepers of portraying them as anonymous, faceless people.
Honey was the most important sweetener in those days. The
colonies of bees were smoked out in autumn; the peasants
would then catch new colonies in spring.
As has already been
observed, a desire to warn and instruct is still regarded by
some as the primary aim of Bruegel's work. Yet we must ask
if The Peasant Wedding Banquet (1568) in the barn - to take
but one example - was really painted with the intention of
keeping the observer from gluttony. Men and women are
sitting solemnly and thoughtfully at table; the helpers are
carrying round a simple porridge on a door which has been
taken off its hinges; the bride is sitting motionless under
her bridal crown. On the right, a monk is conversing with a
gentleman dressed in black. Though wine or beer is being
poured into jugs in the foreground, there is no trace of
drunkenness or gluttony among the wedding party. Indeed,
they do not even appear particularly cheerful. Eating is
portrayed as a serious activity. Moreover, the wall of straw
or unthreshed corn and the crossed sheaves with a rake serve
to keep in mind the labour by which the food is wrested from
In Bruegel's time, such a scene depicting people at table
will have reminded observers of the Wedding at Cana, as
described in the second chapter of St. John's Gospel. The
story of Christ turning water into wine was often referred
to in contemporary works. Traditional representations
required a large company at table and - as in Bruegel's
painting - a man filling jugs. Jesus and the wedding guests
were not portrayed in the act of eating, however - not even
in those instances where the artist had shifted the wedding
to his own time.
It was a fundamental given in Bruegel's century that saints,
nobles and burgher families were never depicted eating; they
might be shown sitting at table, but were not allowed to
touch the fare before them, nor even to open their mouths,
let alone put anything into them. This drawing a veil over
the act of eating must have been in accordance with an
unwritten rule. In all probability, people found it
disconcerting to be reminded of the fact that no-one, no
matter how rich, or how powerful, or how spiritual he may
be, can live without nourishment - for eating reminds us of
our dependence upon Nature, our dependence upon our
digestive organs. This was at odds with a concept of art in
which man was idealized, one seeking to make man in God's
image, to render him a superior individual.
The Peasant Wedding Banquet
The bride is sitting under
her bridal crown; it is unclear which of the others is the
bridegroom. The feast is taking place in the barn, the wall
behind the guests consisting of stacked-up straw or corn.
Two ears of corn with a rake call to mind the work that
harvesting involves. The plates are being carried around on
a door taken off its hinges. The principal form of
nourishment in those days consisted of bread, porridge and
Peasant Wedding Feast, c. 1567
The Peasant Wedding Banquet (detail)
The painting, now measuring
114 x 163 cm, is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. It
is neither signed nor dated. The signature and date were
probably on the bottom section of the original oak panel,
which was sawn off and replaced at a later date. The
craftsmanship of the more recent section is noticeably
Experts think Bruegel
painted the work c. 1567. He married in 1563 and died in
1569, aged about 40. The Peasant Wedding Feast was therefore
executed during his short marriage, shortly before his
The celebration takes place on the threshing floor of a
farm. Long tables - not even the rich had proper tables in
the 16th century - were put together using wooden planks and
trestles. The man in black on the far right is seated on an
upturned tub, while most of the other guests sit on roughly
hewn benches. The only chair with a backrest has been
reserved for an old man: possibly the notary who drew up the
contract of marriage. The prints pinned to the backrest of
the long bench resemble those sold during religious
festivals or pilgrimages.
In the foreground two men serve bowls of meal, using an
unhinged door as a tray. Though merely servants at the
feast, the left of the two, the largest figure in the whole
painting, is the focal point. The colours, too, make him
stand out. Presumably, the artist used the figure to
stabilize a complicated composition. The half-diagonals
formed by the two rows of eaters in the foreground intersect
in the waiter; the edges of the back of his apron mark the
A bunch of ribbons, similar
to those tied to the instruments of the two bagpipe players,
or peeping out from some men's shirts, hangs from his cap.
Usually, these were used to lace up trousers. Worn on the
hat, or tied to instruments, they probably indicated
membership of a group. Young men at the time lived very much
in cliques, a source of fun as well as an opportunity to
celebrate with people of their own age.
Scholars often attribute religious or allegorical
significance to the work. Some see it as the marriage at
Cana where Christ turned water into wine and vessels were
filled over and over again. Others suggest this was
Bruegel's version of the Last Supper. Yet another view has
it that he was warning his contemporaries against "gula",
the deadly sin of gluttony.
None of these hypotheses is
especially convincing. However, The Peasant Wedding Feast is
full of realistic detail, providing a window on 16th-century
social reality. In his biographical Book of Painters,
published in 1604, Carel van Mander describes how Bruegel
often went "to visit the peasants, whenever there was a
wedding; or kermis".
The barn is full
The Peasant Wedding Banquet (detail)
Two sheaves of corn, held
together by a rake, whose pole handle is buried in stacked
cereal: at first glance the background of straw or
unthreshed wheat, almost identical in hue to the trodden
clay of the floor, looks like a normal wall. However, the
projecting rake and, above the bride's head, the prongs of a
fork used to hold up a decorative cloth, together with the
blades of corn sticking out on top of the heap, make it
clear what Bruegel intended to depict.
The image of a full barn evoked a different response four
hundred years ago than in our own age of agricultural
surpluses. Cereal was the staple diet; as bread or meal it
formed the bulk of every mealtime. To Bruegel's
contemporaries, the sight of a full barn meant the threat of
starvation was staved off for the following twelve months.
It was a threat which, as in many developing countries
today, recurred annually in Europe. The size of harvests
varied enormously, and in the Netherlands, according to
historians, losses of as much as 80% had been recorded from
one year to the next. Prices were consequently unstable: a
yearly increase of 500 percent for a standard measure of
oats or wheat was not unknown. A craftsman's apprentice, for
example, spent 70% of his income on food, which was mainly
cereal. High prices meant insufficient nourishment, which,
in turn, led to reduced bodily resistance, illness and early
death. Epidemics usually followed in the wake of famine.
Town authorities attempted to compensate by stockpiling and
imports. At that time, the Baltic was the breadbasket of
Europe, with the Hanse in control of shipment. A sea-journey
round the coast of Denmark could take two months. With two
months for the order to reach the supplier, and allowance
made for winter stoppages, it is obvious that imports could
not compensate for bad harvests. What counted was how full
your barn was.
There were seasonal fluctuations in price, too. Cereal was
cheapest in autumn, directly after the harvest. Most of the
threshing was done between September and January - on the
threshing floor, which provides the setting for Bruegel's
Peasant Wedding Feast. Since weddings usually took place as
soon as the harvest was gathered, the cereal here was
The Netherlandish peasants were better off in the 16th
century than many of their class in other European
countries. They had their freedom: serfdom had been
abolished, and forced labour for the feudal lords was
prohibited by law. In the Netherlands, the peasants'
situation made it unnecessary to have a war of the type that
raged in Germany. Initially, the Netherlanders found it
possible to adapt to the colonial hegemony of the Spanish
Habsburgs. In 1567, however, Philip II sent the Duke of Alba
from Madrid to raise taxes and wipe out Protestant "heresy".
The last years of Bruegel's life marked the end of an era of
prosperity. The long struggle for the liberation of the
Netherlands had begun.
The Peasant Wedding Banquet (detail)
A spoon in your hat meant poverty
The Peasant Wedding Banquet (detail)
There was no more densely populated region north of the Alps
than the Netherlands. This was largely due to higher wages.
The textiles industry flourished; the Netherlandish ports
attracted coastal trade from the Baltic in the north to
Lisbon in the south; for several decades Antwerp, the site
of the first stock-exchange, was the economic hub of Europe.
The agricultural economy of the densely-populated
Netherlands was thought especially progressive and
productive. The fact that peasants, as free holders, worked
for their own livelihood, acted as a stimulant - even if the
feudal lords owned their houses and land. As money
circulation grew and capitalist forms of wage-labour
developed, the wealthy bourgeoisie, who had begun to replace
the nobles, invested in agriculture as a means of supporting
their families in times of crisis.
The man in the dark suit "with broad sleeves may have been
the landlord. It is impossible to say whether he was a
wealthy burgher or a noble, for to wear a sword was no
longer deemed an aristocratic privilege.
The aristocracy and clergy each made up approximately one
percent of the population. Relations between them were
generally excellent. In order to preserve property and
power, many sons and daughters of the nobility did not
marry, entering various Church institutions in-stead. In
this sense, the Church provided a form of social relief,
and, in return, was made the benefactor of countless
donations and legacies. For Bruegel's contemporaries it
would have been immediately obvious why the monk in the
painting converses with the only wedding guest who might be
construed as an aristocrat.
The spoon attached to a waiter's hat was a sign of poverty.
Since the abolition of serfdom and, its corollary, the
obligation of feudal lords to maintain their serfs' welfare,
the rural proletariat had greatly increased in number.
Peasants with no property or means took whatever work they
could find, harvesting, threshing, even assisting on festive
occasions. Most lived in huts and were unmarried; wages were
not enough to feed a family. Few had a fixed abode, for they
spent too long on the road in search of work, a crust of
bread or a bowl of meal. This explains the spoon attached to
the man's hat, and his bag, of which - in the present work -
only the shoulder-strap is visible.
The wooden spoon is round. Oval spoons came later, when -
following the example of the courts - it was thought bad
manners to open one's mouth too wide while eating. To put
something into one's mouth with a fork was practically
unknown in the 16th century. The alternatives to the spoon
were fingers or a knife. Everyone carried their own knife;
even the child in the foreground has one dangling from his
belt. No instrument features more often in Bruegel's
paintings - the knife was the 16th-century all-purpose tool.
Melancholia, a thirsty
The Peasant Wedding Banquet (detail)
The jug being filled in the
foreground is a man's drinking vessel. Women drank from
smaller jugs. Whether they are serving wine or beer is
impossible to say. Wine had been a popular drink in the
Netherlands for several centuries and, at that time, was
grown much further north than was later the case. By the
16th century, however, wine-growing was on the decline. The
perimeter of the wine-growing regions retreated south,
settling more or less where we find it today. Ludovico
Guicciardini, reporting on Netherlandish wine in 1563, noted
that the "little there was of it generally tasted sour".
Wine was replaced by beer. This was originally imported from
Germany, from Hamburg or Bremen. Not until Bruegel's
lifetime was beer brewed in large quantities in the
Netherlands, where it was not only produced in breweries.
The peasants celebrating in this scene may have brewed their
own beer. Home-brewing was wide-
spread, and considered a woman's work. Calculations suggest
an average daily consumption of one litre per person.
According to Guicciardini: "For those used to it, the common
beverage of beer, brewed with water, spelt, barley and some
wheat, and boiled with hops, is a pleasurable and healthy
Beer was an important part of the 16th-century diet. It even
caused rebellions - for example when the Antwerp city
council prohibited the brewing of beer in the Old Town, or
its transportation from the surrounding regions. The council
"were quick to repeal the beer-law that had so displeased
the common people", wrote Guicciardini.
It is to this Italian that we owe the most interesting
account of the Netherlands in the 16th century. In his own
country, as in Spain, drunkenness was considered
disgraceful, and Guicciardini conseqeuently castigates the
"vice and abuse of drunkenness". According to his
observations, the Netherlanders drank "night and day, and so
much that, besides creating disorder and mischief, it does
them great harm in more ways than one". As a southerner,
unused to the north, he found an excuse for their behaviour:
the climate. The air was "damp and melancholy", and "they
had found no better means" of driving away their
There is no sign of drunkenness in this painting, however.
Indeed, the mood seems comparatively sober; an Italian may
even have found it melancholy. Nonetheless, the mood would
no doubt change as the meal progressed, or during the
celebrations, which could last anything up to several days.
Bruegel's Peasant Wedding Dance (Institute of Arts,
Detroit), 1566, a painting of almost identical format, shows
the guests in a frenzy of drunken revelry. The two paintings
could almost be a pair.
In contrast to the ease with which the bride may be
identified, it is difficult to decide which of the
celebrants is the bridegroom; he may be the man filling the
jugs, whose place, apparently unoccupied, may be at the top
of the table on the right - obscured by one of the waiters.
He would thus be sitting between two men, just as his bride
is seated between two women. Wedding feasts are known to
have taken place without the bridegroom being invited, for a
wedding day was primarily the day of the bride.
The bride does not lift a finger
The Peasant Wedding Banquet (detail)
The bride, backed by green
fabric, a bridal crown hovering above her head, is easily
distinguished. She presents a strange sight: her eyes
semi-closed, hands quite still, she is completely
motionless. Brides were expected to do nothing on their
wedding days; forbidden to lift a finger, she was thus
guaranteed at least one holiday in a lifetime of hard labour.
A person who avoided work was sometimes referred to as
having "arrived with the bride". The nobleman, or wealthy
burgher, at the right of the painting is the only other
guest with his hands folded. He, too, was a stranger to
physical labour, it seems.
The bride is also the only guest not to cover her hair. She
is displaying her long hair in public for the last time.
Henceforth, like her married cousins at table, she will wear
her hair under a bonnet. Here, she wears a circlet, a
"bride's coronet". In many parts of the country at the time,
this would have a prescribed value. In the same way, the
number of guests, the number of courses served at the feast
and the value of the wedding presents were all determined in
advance according to specific criteria. The authorities
justified this measure by claiming that it was necessary to
protect families against excessive expenditure, but the more
likely explanation is that it pro-vided a means of making
social status visible. A feast of this kind would have given
Bruegel's contemporaries a fairly exact picture of the
financial standing of the newly-weds, or their parents.
The meal was preceded by a wedding ceremony. As far as
Luther was concerned this was a purely secular affair, and a
priest's presence optional rather than compulsory. This had
also been the case among Catholics. In 1563, however, a few
years before the painting was executed, the cardinals at the
Council of Trent decided that only priests should join
couples in wedlock. It is possible that the Franciscan monk
at the table was invited precisely for this purpose. At the
time, however, ceremonies were frequently held at the
entrance of the church rather than in front of an altar.
Statistics for the period reveal that women raised an
average of 2.5 children. There had been a child more in the
previous half of the 16th century, but the peasant
population was decimated by the wars of liberation which
broke out in the wake of Alba's rule of terror, the
wholesale pillage, perpetrated especially in unprotected
rural areas, by marauding armies, and by ensuing famine and
Bruegel did not live to witness this. His paintings were
bought by wealthy burghers or nobles, many finding their way
into collections owned by the Austrian Habsburgs. In 1594
the Peasant Wedding Feast was purchased in Brussels by
Archduke Ernst. It later turned up in Emperor Rudolf II's
famous collection at Prague.
There was practically no chance of peasants themselves
seeing a painting like this. The only works of art they saw
were in churches. If they owned decorative pictures at all,
they were most likely to be religious prints of the type
pinned to the backrest of the bench in Bruegel's Wedding
The Peasant Wedding Banquet
Bruegel had no inhibitions
in this respect. Two figures in his Peasant Wedding Banquet
in the barn have their spoons in their mouths, one guest has
set the jug to his lips, and the child in the foreground is
licking his fingers. The same may be encountered in The Corn
Harvest, where the midday break during work in the field
means spoon in mouth, jug and dish set to lips.
One might gain the impression that Bruegel was confirming
the prejudice against the peasant as a being at the mercy of
basic needs, one at whom the man of education might laugh. A
closer examination of his figures reveals this to be
incorrect, however. Furthermore, executing a large-format
painting merely in order to poke fun at someone would
contradict the custom of the times: mockery was the realm of
cheap prints. Finally, Bruegel has indicated in his picture
The Land of Cockaigne (1567) that he was thinking not only
of peasants in connection with a dependence upon
nourishment. It is not just a peasant we see lying there,
but also a noble warrior and a scholar. Bruegel has bedded
them down in different ways, the aristocrat sleeping on a
cushion, the scholar on a fur cloak, the peasant on the
flail with which he threshes the corn. All three have eaten
their way through the mountain of porridge; all three have
crammed themselves with eggs, meat and poultry before
sinking into sleep, their bellies full.
The Land of Cockaigne
A peasant, a knight and a
scholar are lying with full bellies under a tree around the
trunk of which a tabletop has been fixed. The squire,
wearing some pieces of the knight's armour, is keeping
watch, hoping that something will fly into his mouth. Behind
the fairytale fantasy of the land in which there is
nourishment in abundance lies the experience of
The Land of Cockaigne (detail)
You must eat your way
through a mountain of porridge to reach the land of
Cockaigne, the proverbial "land of milk and honey". There,
the fences are made of sausages, the geese lie ready-grilled
on the plates, the pigs bring knives with them, and what one
might take to be cacti are in fact made of oatcakes.
The Gloomy Day
Bruegel portrayed the
significance of eating over and over again; in doing so,
however, he did not draw a veil over the excretion of what
had been digested. In several of his paintings, a man may be
seen standing against a wall, his back to the observer (e.g.
The Massacre of the Innocents, The Gloomy Day, The Census at
Bethlehem, or even in a squatting position, presenting the
observer with bared buttocks (The Fair at Hoboken, The
Magpie on the Gallows).
The Fair at Hoboken, 1559
Yet the artist remains
discreet, leaving women out of such actions, giving no undue
prominence to this emptying of the bowels. Nevertheless, the
fact that he should consider such a thing at all worthy of
depiction distinguishes him from almost all his
contemporaries, particularly from the Italians and the
so-called "Romanists" who were their pupils.
The Massacre of the
The Census at Bethlehem
The Italians and Romanists emphasized what distinguished man
from the animal and plant world. Bruegel, in contrast,
emphasized their similarities, the natural, "begotten, not
made" element in man. In the words of the Creation story,
"the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and
breathed into his nostrils the breath of life" (Genesis 2:7)
- Bruegel sees not just the divine breath but also the
material, the dust of the ground.
This may be observed in many of his pictures, in widely
differing motifs. The Wedding Dance in the Open Air (1566)
and The Peasant Dance (1568), for instance, convey an
impression of vitality, through a whole host of people,
movement, and vivid colours. It is not from the head that
vitality comes, however, but from the body, from the belly.
Bruegel has emphasized the codpieces among the wedding
guests; contemporary fashion demanded that one dress up the
male sex organs, but the painter has set them off to even
greater advantage. Fertility and reproduction are vigorously
celebrated in his Wedding Dance in the Open Air.
The Wedding Dance in the Open Air
A picture of bright colours
and brilliant colour contrasts, with people in boisterous
motion almost to the very edges. Bruegel has painted a
company full of scarcely controlled vitality, adding many
realistic details: the bridal crown has been affixed to a
cloth in the background, in front of which money is being
collected on a table, while ditches have been dug out
further to the left, on the edges of which the company will
sit to eat.
The Wedding Dance in the Open Air (detail)
The bagpipes were
considered to exert an especially erotic effect. This
portrait of a boisterous dance is a celebration of vitality
and fertility. Bruegel has particularly emphasized the
codpieces worn by some of the men.
The Peasant Dance
The running and jumping
steps of the village-square dance have nothing in common
with the formal dances performed at court or in bourgeois
circles. Nor do we find here the care for and adornment of
one's face customary in more elevated circles, by means of
which supposed faults of nature were to be corrected.
The Peasant Dance (detail)
The Peasant Dance (detail)
A further example is The
Parable of the Blind (1568). This painting is not packed
with colourful movement; rather, it is dominated by a
diagonal running towards the lower right-hand corner. We
observe a row of men, successively losing their footing and
tumbling to the ground as if in slow motion. There are no
provoking contrasts of colour; the range is reduced to
shades of brown and bluish grey. Whereas the dance portrayed
"joie de vivre", here we are presented with misery and the
end. The blind leading the blind referred in literature, and
presumably also in everyday language, to foolishness or
wrong behaviour. "And if the blind lead the blind, both
shall fall into the ditch," Christ is supposed to have said
(Matthew 15: 14). He was referring to the Pharisees, whereas
Bruegel takes the proverb literally: blindness diminishes
man, robbing him of his orientation in the world. The artist
portrays, with a brutality unequalled in any of his other
works, how helpless and exposed to disaster someone is who,
while having a body, is unable to use his head properly.
It would thus be erroneous to claim that Bruegel was
celebrating solely the vitality in man, solely that quality
disparagingly termed "animal", solely that realm which is
also filled with violence or inhabited by demons. His demons
are naked; they tear open their bellies, reveal their
innards, point their buttocks at the observer; they are only
body and digestive organs, without spirit. In contrast, his
people are dressed and therefore civilized. Bruegel gives
them neither noble faces nor a form prettified in accordance
with some intellectual concept, as are the features
encountered in works painted in Rome, Florence and Venice.
Bruegel demonstrates that the natural, uncivilized realm of
man is a constituent element of his natural make-up, and the
basis of his existence. No body means no soul. Man rises
above Nature, yet is also a part of it.
The Parable of the Blind
It was only later that
Bruegel's pictures received their titles: they have since
undergone change in the course of the centuries, most of the
works being known today under a number of names. That given
this work - which is also known as The Fall of the Blind-
refers to Christ's parable concerning the Pharisees
(Matthew 15:14): "And if the blind lead the blind, both
shall fall into the ditch."
The Parable of the Blind
The Parable of the Blind (details)
Blind people roamed the
country in groups begging; they were part of the street
scene. Bruegel has painted them with no trace of sympathy,
but so accurately that it is possible for doctors today to
diagnose the various eye disorders or the causes of
blindness: the man on the left is suffering from leucoma of
the cornea (so-called "wall-eye"), and the one on the right
from amaurosis, while the eyeballs of the blind man in the
detail below have been gouged out, perhaps as punishment,
perhaps in connection with an argument.
At the end of his life,
Bruegel was to display once more in a landscape painting,
The Magpie on the Gallows (1568), this attachment to and
affinity with everything that grows and passes. Once again,
the observer is looking down from an elevated point upon
woods, meadows, cliffs, and a river reaching the sea just
below the line of the horizon. We could perhaps speak here
of a Bruegelian standard motif. A watermill stands in the
valley. The picture is framed by lofty trees towering up on
Here again, as in his early paintings, the artist has
populated the broad landscape with the little figures of
people - people dancing, making music, strolling, chatting,
one person in the left-hand foreground relieving himself
with exposed buttocks. We might be reminded of the Stoics,
of their statement to the effect that man seems small if he
considers "the entire eternity and size of the whole world".
Yet Bruegel goes a step further. His figures all have
similar faces; they are not to be recognized as individuals;
they appear clumsy living things - and the distance
separating them from the animal and plant worlds seems
insignificant. Not only are they small; in Bruegel's
specific way, they are also integrated into Nature, safe and
secure in the artist's expanse of landscape.
The Magpie on the Gallows is the painting Bruegel is
believed to have left to his wife, with the comment that he
was referring by magpies to the gossips he would like to see
hanged. As already mentioned, the gallows was specifically
associated with Spanish rule, the authorities having
earmarked a shameful death by hanging for the "predicants",
the preachers who were spreading the new Protestant
doctrine. And Alba's regime of terror was based upon
"gossip" or denunciation. The proverbial expression "to shit
at the gallows" means that someone is unconcerned (cf.
modern English "not to give a shit") about death and the
authorities; "dancing under the gallows" was said of someone
who either did not see danger or was not afraid of it.
Bruegel was thus presenting his picture of man and
simultaneously commenting upon the political situation. His
works certainly had no direct political effect, if for no
other reason than the fact that they disappeared into
private collections. It is by no means impossible, however,
that they may have indirectly strengthened the Netherlands
feeling of autonomy, thanks to his painting scenes from the
life of his countrymen rather than from the world of
classical mythology, and to his emphasizing the earthly
element in man and his close attachment to Nature, instead
of idealizing him in accordance with the Mediterranean
The Magpie on the Gallows
Following his customary
practice, Bruegel painted a further landscape view in the
year before his death. He depicted a plain with fertile
meadows and fields, people cheerfully dancing, and a village
lying concealed in the shadow of a clifftop castle. The
painting conveys the impression of harmony and peace,
disturbed only by the gallows in the centre. Unlike death by
the sword, death on the gallows was considered dishonourable.
And yet a man at bottom left is acting according to the
proverb "to shit at the gallows", meaning that he is not
concerned about death and the authorities, while "dancing
under the gallows" was employed to describe someone who
either did not see danger or was not afraid of it.