Encounter with a Bruegel masterpiece

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While over at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, we went to take a look at Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s painting, The Procession to Calvary, regarded as one of the artist’s greatest works, on display again at Nostell Priory after a public appeal raised £2.7 million in three months to prevent its sale.

Completed in 1602, the painting sets Christ’s journey to the crucifixion in a contemporary Flemish landscape teeming with figures getting on with their daily lives, many too busy to pay any attention to the procession of Christ and his captors making their way to a bleak hilltop already studded with crosses.

The National Trust and the Art Fund launched the appeal to save the painting for the nation in December 2010. Since the 18th century its home had been Nostell Priory, an 18th-century mansion that for 300 years has been the seat of the Winn family who built up an outstanding art collection in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Since 1954, the house has been owned by the National Trust, but the family loaned many paintings, including the Bruegel, so they could be seen in the rooms for which they were bought. Last year the present owner of the painting, Lord St Oswald, announced he was putting it up for sale.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger was born in 1564 or 1565, the eldest son of Pieter Brueghel the Elder.  The Procession to Calvary at Nostell Priory is signed and dated P. BRVEGEL/1602 and is one of five versions of this painting. The earliest (1599) is in the Uffizi, Florence. Many art historiansregard this second version as the best.

As with any Bruegel painting, it’s the detail that is fascinating.

A platoon of soldiers clad in gleaming armour hold aloft a yellow standard bearing a black double-headed eagle, symbol of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor.  Bruegel’s entire life had been defined by war in Flanders, as soldiers of the Spanish Hapsburgs, clad in the kind of armour he depicts and flying this standard, suppressed revolt in the Spanish Netherlands.

Set apart from the main action on a mound overlooking the procession are four women – the Virgin Mary and her three companions: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Mary Salome.

The painting shows Christ carrying the cross on the way to his crucifixion.  In this detail Bruegel depicts Simon the Cyrene, dressed in contemporary short trousers, Christ carry the Cross.

The painting includes a host of carefully observed individual portraits: religious figures, peasants, children, animals, gentry and soldiers.

The horse-drawn cart carries the Good Thief and the Bad Thief, each accompanied by a black-cloaked friar.  Two children sit on the hillside, watching the procession.  In the distance, Brueghel depicts a Flemish townscape with church spires, pointed gables and a sunlit square.

As for the house itself, it is one of those that, frankly, I find depressing – a succession of dark and dismal rooms filled with oversized furniture, faded tapestries and gloomy paintings.  The library seemed to be mainly lined with sets of the Statutes of England and similar stuff.  The gloomy air was reinforced by scaffolding encasing one of the main stairs where problems with the roof were being dealt with. Outside, the Stables were also encased in scaffolding – the specialist building firm contracted to implement forward-looking improvements went bust on Christmas Eve, the workers sacked on the spot with no pay.  But the moist Victoria sponge made with rhubarb jam, a remnant of the previous day’s rhubarb festival, was a dream.

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2 thoughts on “Encounter with a Bruegel masterpiece

  1. Hey Gerry!
    I read somewhere that you are a retired teacher – what were your subjects? You seem to have widespread interests and eternal curiosity. I imagine you were a fabulous educator.
    Art, literature, poetry, music and an appreciation of natural beauty are all evident in your writing and pictures. Keep on blogging, please!

  2. I am indeed a retired teacher, quotidian not fabulous; I taught mainly on Access to Higher Education courses – for adults who had missed out on achieving the necessary qualifications for university entrance when they were at school. I taught study skills and European Studies, where I did introduce elements of literature and art into the historical and poltical themes we were examining. Now I’m retired I’ve got the freedom to follow my interests, wherever they lead. Thank you for your generous comments.

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