Pieter Brueghel the Elder

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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 thing.

Head of a Peasant Woman
after 1564

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 his oeuvre.
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
c. 1568

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 the soil.
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 soup.

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 poorer.

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 death.
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 central axis.

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 probably unthreshed.
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 business

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 drink."
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 weather-induced melancholia.
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 plague.
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 Feast.

Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen

The Peasant Wedding Banquet (detail)


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 ever-recurring famine.

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 Innocents

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 (details)

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 both sides.
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 concept.

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.