For a while now we have had the idea of pursuing Pieter Bruegel by visiting cities where his works are exhibited – particularly Brussels, Antwerp and Vienna. We were inspired by Robert L Bonn’s, Painting Life, in which the author does the same. So, when a bargain offer came our way for a package comprising three nights in Brussels plus Eurostar travel, we grabbed it.
Details of the life of Pieter Bruegel the Elder are sketchy. He was born in a small town north of Brussels some time between 1520 and 1525, but the rest of his early life is lost, undocumented, in the mists of time. But the records do show pretty conclusively that he lived in Antwerp between 1548 and 1563 (apart from a two year sojourn in Italy in the early 1550s), where he worked as an illustrator of prints and completed some of his greatest paintings. It’s also documented that he spent the last six years of his life in Brussels, where he completed another 27 of his 36 major paintings, and where he died in 1569.
Bruegel lived in times of great change and danger. Antwerp, where he first settled and built a reputation, was a boom-town, the fastest-growing city in Europe at the time, and the new financial and economic centre of the western world, attracting businessmen from many countries. The discovery of new sea routes via Africa to Asia, and over the Atlantic to America, had helped Antwerp to a position of prominence as the old Mediterranean trading ports declined in importance. Antwerp was was where goods such as silk and spices from the Middle East, grain from the Baltic, and wool from England were traded, and where the influx of silver from Spanish America led to the growth of banks.
Capital, trade and industry went hand in hand with luxury, and Antwerp became a magnet for painters. It is reckoned that at least 360 painters were at work in Antwerp in 1560, a ratio of approximately one painter for every 250 persons. There was no better place, outside Italy, for a painter to be than Antwerp at this time.
Later, in 1567, when he was around forty years old and living in Brussels, the ruthless Duke of Alba – under orders from Philip II of Spain, to whose empire the Netherlands provinces belonged – entered the city at the head of an army under orders to forcibly convert Dutch and Flemish Protestants to Catholicism. In the years that followed, thousands would be tortured and put to death, leading to an uprising and eighty years of war.
In the last two years of his life, Bruegel would witness Alba’s repression and the beginning of the Protestant uprising. Although there is no documentary evidence of the painter’s religious leanings, the paintings he made in this period – most notably The Massacre of the Innocents which I wrote about earlier this year – offer hints, suggesting a man who maintained a critical, if guarded, distance from the policies and actions of the men who ruled his land. Carel van Mander, who published the first biography of Bruegel in 1604, told that, on his deathbed, Bruegel instructed his wife to burn certain drawings because they were ‘all too biting and full of scorn’. He may have regretted his actions, but it’s more likely that he feared they could have unpleasant consequences for his wife.
Anyway, we are in the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, and there are two rooms hung exclusively with Bruegels. Some of them are painted not by the man himself, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, but by his son, Pieter II. You need to have your wits about you when looking at a Bruegel; for instance, hanging here is an Adoration of the Magi, The Census at Bethlehem, and a version of the Massacre of the Innocents that we last saw at Buckingham Palace. But all are copies by the son. They’re not quite in the same league, and close study reveals significant differences that may reflect the younger man’s more cautious approach. Just to confuse matters even further, there are also some paintings by the other Bruegel son, Jan (who, like Pieter II, changed the family name to Brueghel).
But there can be no doubts about the most famous painting here: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. There’s a Flemish proverb (Bruegel liked to paint proverbial subjects) that goes ‘No plough stops for the dying man’, referring to the way we manage to get on with our daily lives immune to the suffering of fellow human beings. Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus depicts the Icarus story as described in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which mentions a fisherman, peasant at his plough, and a shepherd – but from the perspective of the proverb. In the words of Auden’s poem, this is the human position: suffering takes place ‘While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’.
The fisherman casts his line as Icarus, legs thrashing, drowns in the bay beyond. In the foreground, seemingly unaware, the ploughman ploughs his furrow, In the field beyond, the shepherd tends his flock, gazing in the opposite direction to the tragedy:
…everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster …
the white legs disappearing into the green.
The landscape in which these three people go about their business while Icarus drowns is significant, too. Bruegel renders the four humans as being almost insignificant in an expansive landscape painted in such a way as to create the perspective of depth. Whilst there are elements of realism, the scene appears almost fantastical.
Yet the ship behind Icarus is a faithful representation of the latest and largest type of ocean-going cargo boats that were making an appearance in Antwerp at the time that Bruegel painted this picture there. In the far distance beyond he has painted a modern seaport, just as if a painter of our time painted the Thames with the Spire, Gherkin and all the other glass and steel towers of the London skyline.
Later that day we talked about what we had seen, and I was struck by Rita’s suggestion (made with reference to The Census at Bethlehem, but I think it applies to many of his works) that when Bruegel painted an event in the past, he saw the past through the lens of the present (and vice-versa). He sees the past, but in terms of his own present; now, when we look at one of his paintings we see it in our own present, and a new layer of meaning is added, as if it were a palimpsest.
Nearby in this amazing room is The Census at Bethlehem itself. Although Auden’s poem Musee des Beaux Arts draws its central motif from the Icarus painting, the references in the first verse are to The Census at Bethlehem. The painting depicts Mary and Joseph in the snow of Flanders, he leading with a red hat and long carpenter’s saw over his shoulder. They are surrounded by Auden’s people ‘eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’. And here are the children, ‘skating on a pond at the edge of the wood’ with their spinning tops and impromptu toboggans, sliding on the ice.
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
In The Census at Bethlehem, the biblical scene is so completely integrated into Bruegel’s depiction of a Flemish village on a late winter afternoon that you might miss the holy couple on their way to be counted. On the left is the tavern which is serving as the census-taking station. However, what Bruegel has chosen to portray is not enumeration, but rather taxes being paid:
‘And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed’
The people standing in front of the window are paying their taxes, while the officials inside a re receiving the coins and registering the amount in ledgers. In 1566, when Bruegel painted this picture, taxes imposed on the Netherlands amounted to half the tax revenues of the Spanish Hapsburg Empire. A year later, the Duke of Alba arrived to root out Protestantism and impose additional taxation. To drive home the point Bruegel paints in a small detail next to the window where the taxes are being collected: a plaque with the Hapsburg double eagle emblem.
As with many Bruegel paintings, you don’t know where to start looking: there is no centre, everything is happening at once. It’s the small details that draw you in and hold your attention – which is why seeing these works in the flesh is such a different experience to looking at a reproduction.
It’s a Flemish village on a late winter afternoon. People are going about their daily activities, bundled up against the cold. In the distance two people enter the village church. Someone passes by on a donkey. You think about all time being present, the cycle of a life turning from birth to the hours before death.
The village pond and the stream are sheets of ice. The cold chills to the bone, and a man pisses against the wall of a house.
Nearby, a group of heavily-muffled villagers are gathered around a brazier, warming their hands.
A hollow tree with a sign of swan is serving as an impromptu bar; ale is being poured from a flagon and a group of soldiers with their pikes natter by a wall.
Essential routines continue: firewood has been collected in the nearby countryside and is being unloaded from a cart.
Supplies in sacks are being unloaded.
Meanwhile, children enjoy themselves – skating on the ice, and having a snowball fight. One youth trips another, sending him sprawling in the snow.
In the foreground, a pig is being slaughtered, a seasonal bonus for rural communities as the year drew to a close. Unnoticed and unremarked, Joseph and Mary make their way into this bustling scene.
Hours later, a child is born. Bruegel painted the Adoration of the Christ child by the three Kings three times. None of the works show the scene with the splendour or idealization that was considered appropriate in Catholic orthodoxy. In this room at the Musee des Beaux Arts hangs the earliest of the paintings, The Adoration of the Kings, done in 1559.
Unlike the others, this one was painted on canvas rather than wood and is faded and in poor condition. Bruegel has surrounded the central figures with a large crowd of people, some in Flemish peasant costume, others in Middle Eastern dress.
In the near distance, behind the manger, Bruegel has painted an elephant.
In Painting Life: The Art of Pieter Bruegel, The Elder, Robert L. Bonn writes that he found Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap so powerful and full of meaning he could not pass it by. He had to give it a second look and, though he did not realize it at the time, was destined to think about the painting for years afterwards:
Painted in 1565, [Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap] depicts feelings we all have about social change. At first sight, it appears to be a straightforward, idyllic winter scene of a Flemish village, complete with snow-capped houses and skaters enjoying an afternoon of leisure. A city looms in the background of an idealized rural village. A large crow, far too ominous to be just another bird, is perched on a branch in the upper right corner. The other birds bear a curious resemblance to the humans. Both the crows and humans are painted mostly in black. The two birds perched on the branch of the tree that overhangs the pond are painted the same size as the people skating. We are left to wonder. Could it be that the birds and the people share some common predicament? Given the trap, could the predicament be one that foreshadows some kind of impending doom?
To put it another way, Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap is far more than a 16th century Flemish landscape. The painting makes you think. The more you think about it, the more you wonder what Bruegel was trying to portray. Are the birds in the lower right corner about to be caught in the trap because they have taken the bait too casually? Or, is it the people who are in danger, although seemingly skating without a care in the world, on what is all-too-thin ice?
The inhabitants of a village are enjoying themselves on a frozen river. In the foreground under a high tree a bird trap has been set up. It’s an old door propped up on a stick; if you pull the string attached to the stick the trap will slam shut. This motif (coupled with the hole in the ice which the skaters seem oblivious of) has often been interpreted as an allegory: the trap will soon kill the birds, the ice can give way under the weight of the people and the hole in the ice is a danger to the heedless skater. The painting therefore alludes to the precariousness of existence.
It is also possible that Bruegel simply wanted to paint an ordinary village scene, and tackle the challenge of representing snow in paint. Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones made the point that in 1565 there was a particular reason why this would be at the forefront of a painter’s thoughts:
Bruegel invented the snow scene, a unique achievement. All the other genres of painting – still life, portraiture, battles and histories, landscape – originate in antiquity. Depictions of snow originate with one man, and one terrible winter.The year 1565 saw the coldest winter anyone could remember. The world turned white, birds froze, fruit trees died, the old and young faded away. It was a shock – and a foreboding. This seemed to be more than just a cold winter. The climate was perceptibly changing, and that is what Bruegel’s snow scenes eerily record. All of them – from Hunters in the Snow painted in 1565, to Census in Bethlehem in 1566, to The Adoration of the Magi in 1567 – were made in response to that year and what it presaged.
The climate was changing dramatically and dangerously, although in the opposite direction from today’s impending crisis. The world was getting colder. Temperatures dropped globally in the Renaissance, so severely that climatologists call the era from 1400 to 1850 the Little Ice Age. The winter of 1565 was one of the first when everyone could see something had changed. But what was to be done?This was a pre-industrial society that had only the most limited control over its environment. The Little Ice Age was a naturally caused phenomenon, and humanity – puny then in the face of nature – could only try to adapt. Bruegel’s paintings are not just prophecies. They are recipes of adaptation, illustrating new ways to live with the cold: how to inhabit it, even enjoy it. Ice and snow turn the world upside-down. In Bruegel’s paintings, the very chill that threatens life provokes vitality. People don’t just shiver in the snow. In his Census at Bethlehem, while adults huddle miserably, children skate and sledge on the ice. … Bruegel captured humanity’s double relationship with winter: we fear it and we love it. Surviving winter is part of what makes us human. For … Bruegel, whiteness is wondrous, frightening – and the world would be a poorer place without it.
The Fall of the Rebel Angels, painted in 1562, is a very different kind of painting to the others displayed here, being one of very few that Bruegel painted in the style of Hieronymous Bosch, with whom, in his lifetime, Bruegel was often compared. Along with Mad Meg, which we saw a couple of days later in Antwerp, and The Triumph of Death, it’s one of three paintings probably executed for an unknown private patron, in 1562. The quality and richness of invention bear witness to a familiarity with the world of demons that Bruegel shared with his Flemish countrymen. In these paintings it’s as if Bruegel’s demons are present not in some metaphysical terrain of horror, but the real world of Flemish villages, people and landscapes.
Bruegel Lived at a time when exploration was revealing new lands, astronomy surveyed the heavens, and when the human body and the animal and plant worlds began to be examined scientifically. Yet this remained a time when many, if not most, would have regarded demons as real as trees and animals. Many phenomena, physical deformities, diseases and epidemics – as yet inexplicable – were seen as the work of devils and demons with their human accomplices – witches sorcerers, alchemists. Devils and demons were experienced as part of everyday reality. A generation earlier In the visual arts, they had been given striking expression in the work of Hieronymus Bosch.
In The Fall of the Rebel Angels, Bruegel has depicted the origin of the demons when the Archangel Michael and his followers drove the angels who had rebelled against God out of Heaven. Falling to Hell, the rebel angels are transformed into devils and demons. They are naked, grimacing, tearing open their own bodies and farting in sheer terror.
The rebel angels fall from heaven at the top left of the canvas to hell at the bottom right. Their wings are first transformed into the wings of bats and dragons. Then, as they fall, they are reduced to moths, frogs and other soft things. The rebel angels continue to change their forms as they are driven into the pit of Hell: they lose their legs and wings, and become fish, squid, spawn and strange,swelling seed pods.
At first sight Bruegel appears to be channelling Bosch with these fantastical creatures. But, as some art historians have pointed out, whereas Bosch’s creatures are figments of his imagination, Bruegel’s are more earthy beasts with facial expressions, peering eyes, human limbs. They aren’t Goyaesque phantoms from his subconscious; they are pests of house and field – prickly, buzzing, mocking, biting, threatening – drawn in realistic detail.
The late-lamented Tom Lubbock wrote of this painting in the Independent in 2008:
Bruegel’s fallen angels are an appalling shower. Falling from grace, they have lost their angelic natures and turned into a menagerie of yucky, hybrid critters and beasties. Bizarre, absurd, unpleasant things, they seem neither powerfully dangerous nor deeply evil. They are essentially ridiculous. It is a most unromantic embodiment of sin. […]They plunge in a fizzing swarm, like anti-moths, away from the disc of divine light. They spread out to fill the whole lower half of the picture in a dense and chaotic throng. At the bottom right corner they’re being sucked down a fiery plughole to hell. Bruegel presents these devils as a domestic nuisance, an infestation. The “war in heaven” is a hygiene operation. The task of St Michael, the skinny golden knight, and his fellow loyal angels in white robes, is the kind of disgusting, necessary job that might confront any countryman or town dweller – getting rid of a plague of vermin, beating the things out, driving them away. … What an eyeful! It’s an extraordinary miscellany, made of scattered bits of the world – sea creatures, butterflies, poultry, armoured knights, tentacles, tails, eggs and fruit. You can pick out an inflated puffer fish, a sycamore seed, a mushroom cup, a skeleton.
Two days later we’re in Antwerp. At the Museum Mayer van den Bergh we see two more paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Mad Meg and Twelve Proverbs. Mad Meg is stunning – a large, powerful painting that incorporates dizzying scenes of violence and destruction, ruins, monsters, fights, the mouth of hell, and a woman girded in armour striding forth with a sword in one hand, and a treasure chest under her arm. What can it all mean?
Bruegel’s earliest biographer, Karel van Mander, writing in 1604, described the painting as ‘Dulle Griet, who is looking at the mouth of Hell’. Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) was a term of disparagement given to any bad-tempered, shrewish woman – a hell-cat. In the words of a popular Flemish proverb, ‘She could plunder in front of hell and return unscathed’.
At first sight, Bruegel seems simply to be making fun of noisy, aggressive women. Yet the more you look, the more layered the possible meanings. Meg is human, certainly no demon. Sword in hand,she is gathering up plates, pots and pans. Behind her, other women loot a house, as Meg advances towards the mouth of Hell through a landscape populated by monsters, representing the sins that are punished there. Interestingly, the devilish figures, where their sex can be identified at all, are male. Some are being tied by women to cushions. ‘To tie a devil to a pillow’ meant in those days to cope with the devil – or with a man.
Bruegel loved proverbs: time after time, they serve as inspiration for images in his paintings. A book of proverbs published in Antwerp in 1568 contains a proverb which is very close in spirit to this painting: ‘One woman makes a din, two women a lot of trouble, three an annual market, four a quarrel, five an army, and against six the Devil himself has no weapon’.
Could it be that Bruegel had a sneaking admiration for these strong, rambunctious women? The more I studied the painting, the more it seemed a possibility. And yet – there is a danger of reading modern sensibilities into a work created in the context of a very different culture. Men ruled, sanctioned by religion and custom. A woman then had no privileges. Her father and husband determined her future and decided what was to be done with her property. She was barred from most important occupational fields, while midwives and ‘wise women’ were tried as witches. The Church expected women to be silent and taught that they were less perfect than men. All of which leads Samantha P, in ‘The Threat of Feminine Power and Madness in Bruegel’s Dulle Griet‘, to the following conclusion:
All of the women in this painting are acting outside of the expected realm of women. They exhibit a greater power, an elevation of self, not only above the men that should be controlling them, but above animals and animal-human hybrids as represented by the demons. These are the women that can march up to the mouth of hell and walk away unscathed. These are the women that can fight against the devil and win, giving the women in this painting a frightening power that upsets the already problematic definitions of human and animal, or even the status of different human bodies. There is no status in this image, only chaos at the hands of women with too much power.
But – and this is what makes Bruegel’s paintings (and maybe all art) timeless – we can read the work in our own way in these times. In this apocalyptic vision of a tumultuous world facing destruction, though armies of men are massing, it’s the women who are sending the devils packing. There’s a man spooning money out of his own arse.
This is the most Bosch-like of all Bruegel’s works in which plant, animal and human, organic and inorganic elements, are blended madly. The mouth of Hell is part of a living creature; the crown on the forehead of Hell is also a wall with battlements. On the horizon, a town blazes as masculine-looking demons dance and prance in the flames’ red glow.
Pleased to meet you –
Hope you guess my name.
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game.
‘When all is said and done’, writes Robert L Bonn in Painting Life, ‘we are left with a big question. Was Mad Meg the victim of a suffocating, hellish world? Or was she the triumphant, defiant winner who beat the system, retaliating against it by stealing goods she thought were rightfully hers?’
For a painting that depicts mayhem and disturbance, Mad Meg has had an interesting life. It came into the collections of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, then was looted by the Swedish troops in 1648, and reappeared in Stockholm in 1800. Art collector Fritz Mayer van den Bergh discovered it in 1897 at an auction in Cologne, where he bought it for a minimal sum, only later confirming that it was a Bruegel. Now it hangs in the house that his mother had built after his death as a museum to house his collection of more than a thousand artworks, mostly of Northern Renaissance art.
Also on display in the Museum Mayer is Twelve Proverbs, painted around 1560. It’s not actually a painting, because it consists of twelve small round panels that were originally wooden plates or platters painted by Bruegel. The idea was that they would be arranged on a dresser for decoration and amusement. Soon afterwards they were brought together, framed and the texts of the different proverbs added.
Proverbs were a source of worldly wisdom in Bruegel’s day, and representations of them feature in many of his paintings. Their presence is an indication of Bruegel’s desire to capture on canvas the wisdom and daily routines of the Flemish people of his time. These panels illustrate proverbs such as: ‘No matter what I attempt, I never succeed; I always piss against the moon (‘bark at the moon’, as we’d put it).
And ‘He who works to no avail, throws roses to the pigs (or, casts pearls before swine).
And my favourite: ‘I am touchy and contrary, so I bang my head against a brick wall’.
While in Antwerp, we visited the house of Nicolaas Rockox, wealthy collector and patron of Rubens. In his collection is a copy of Pieter Breugel the Elder’s painting Proverbs (now in Berlin) that illustrates these twelve proverbs and more. The original was painted in Antwerp in 1559; the copy was made by Breugel’s son, Pieter Breughel II in 1595.
Wikipedia has a useful entry that details the over 100 proverbs referenced in the painting.
This detail illustrates two proverbs – To bang one’s head against a brick wall and One foot shod, the other bare (meaning: Balance is paramount).
In this detail, She puts the blue cloak on her husband (ie, She deceives him) is illustrated, while the man in white with the spade is Filling the well after the calf has already drowned (taking action only after a disaster or, as we might say, Shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted). To the right, a man is Casting roses before swine (Wasting effort on the unworthy). Above the swine, The pig is stabbed through the belly (A foregone conclusion or what is done can not be undone), while the black dog on the left illustrates Watch out that a black dog does not come in between (Mind that things don’t go wrong).
This last detail illustrates To be barely able to reach from one loaf to another (To have difficulty living within budget). The spilt bucket references He who has spilt his porridge cannot scrape it all up again (Once something is done it cannot be undone).
As Tom Lubbock wrote in the Independent: ‘Bruegel comes across as an inherently democratic painter, part of popular, not elite, culture. He embraces all of life, effortlessly combining comic and tragic. He’s a crowd pleaser and his art delights in teeming crowds’. That’s why I like his pen and ink sketch, made in 1565 when he was close to 40 years old (top).
In the drawing, Bruegel comments on the relationship between artist and client, art and money. It’s reckoned to be a self-portrait, showing himself with brush poised at his right hand, staring intently at the picture before him. His concentration is unwavering in the act of creating. Behind him stands a second man, probably a merchant, who is obviously captivated by the unseen picture. His hand reaches for his coin purse as he contemplates owning the picture. The painter is clear-eyed, but the joke is that the connoisseur needs glasses. It’s a timeless portrait of the Bohemian artist with his dishevelled hair and the wealthy buyer anticipating a profit on the trade.
- The Massacre of the Innocents (redacted)
- Census At Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel
- Encounter with a Bruegel masterpiece
- The Northern Renaissance: from Durer to Holbein
- Bruegel to Rubens: Masters of Flemish Painting