In the first part of this appreciation of the Bruegel room in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, I looked at Bruegel’s paintings of the seasons. This time I want to explore a group of paintings that share a preoccupation with religion, politics and war.

Bruegel room, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna
The Bruegel room, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

These paintings may have been inspired by religious themes, but Bruegel never approached such matters in a straightforward manner.

Although – and with little evidence to go on – historians argue about the nature and extent of Bruegel’s religious beliefs, looking at the paintings one feels inclined to agree with Alexander Wied who, in a survey of the artist’s work, saw him as an independent, well-educated man who was probably not a zealous adherent of of any particular sect or religion.

Bruegel lived in an age of bloody religious conflict. He died just two years after the brutal Duke of Alba first arrived in Brussels with orders to suppress the revolt of the Netherlands against Spanish, Catholic rule. The persecutions that led up to that conflict would have been a constant background in his mature years. Time and again, it seems that the events taking place about him were reflected in his art – and given the age in which he painted, it was only natural that the vehicle he used for his reflections were stories from the Bible. For the people of his time, history, the Bible and the tribulations of everyday life were inextricably mingled.

The Suicide of Saul
Bruegel, The Suicide of Saul, 1562
The Suicide of Saul, 1562

The Suicide of Saul is the least impressive painting in the room at the Kunsthistorisches Museum: some experts think it may have been painted by the artists in Bruegel’s workshop. There are weaknesses in the composition, too, with foreground and background less effectively reconciled than in later works, while the jutting outcrop of rock on which the main action takes place looks awkward.

Nevertheless, what is interesting is the way in which Bruegel frames the Biblical story – in a very similar way to his approach in The Conversion of St Paul, painted five years later.

The biblical story concerns the outcome of a battle between the Israelites and Philistines, which ended in the defeat of the Israelites and the suicide of King Saul, who fell on his sword to avoid capture.

And the battle went sore against Saul, and the archers hit him; and he was sore wounded of the archers.

Then said Saul unto his armour bearer, Draw thy sword, and thrust me through therewith; lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and abuse me. But his armour bearer would not; for he was sore afraid. Therefore Saul took a sword, and fell upon it.

And when his armour bearer saw that Saul was dead, he fell likewise upon his sword, and died with him.

Traditionally, artists had presented the story as a battle scene, but here Bruegel draws attention away from the contending armies, and isolates Saul’s suicide off to the left of the picture in a tiny, very gory scene.

The Suicide of Saul, detail
The Suicide of Saul, detail

But what is really interesting about this painting is whether it offered an oblique comment on the Dutch revolt against heavy taxation and the suppression of Protestantism under Spanish rule. In 1562, when Bruegel was painting the Suicide of King Saul, his countrymen were taking sides in the duel between William the Silent and Philip II of Spain, and many would see a parallel with the Biblical story of Saul.

The Suicide of Saul, detail
The Suicide of Saul, detail

What’s most likely is that Bruegel took no side in the conflict: all the evidence from this and other paintings is that, like his fellow-countryman Erasmus, he disapproved of any violence committed in the name of Christianity – whether by Calvinists or Catholics. Paintings such as The Massacre of the Innocents and The Triumph of Death are infused with a sense of the tragic futility of all wars. In the background of The Suicide of Saul we can just make out people fleeing from a city engulfed by war while, in the far distant, a fire rages uncontrollably.

The Conversion of St Paul
Bruegel, The Conversion of St. Paul, 1567
The Conversion of St. Paul, 1567

Here’s another of Bruegel’s religious works in which the subject is barely visible. What you see first is a magnificent landscape in which trees and mountains are elongated, somewhat in the Chinese style, while amidst the rocks a cavalcade of travellers make their way, on foot and on horseback.

The Conversion of St Paul, detail
The Conversion of St Paul, detail

You really have to look carefully to find the figure, clothed in a blue smock and sprawled upon the ground, of Paul (actually, Bruegel has located the main subject at the exact intersection between the two diagonals that structure the composition).

The Biblical story that Bruegel illustrates tells of Saul, fanatical persecutor of Christians who, on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus, is dazzled by a ray of light and falls from his horse. He hears the voice of Jesus, put to death only a few years earlier. This is the King James version of the story:

And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest. And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.

And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven. And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?

It’s at this moment that Saul of Tarsus – a Roman citizen, trained in the best Jewish schools, and groomed for the priesthood – becomes the Apostle Paul.

The Conversion of St Paul, detail
The Conversion of St Paul, detail

What might have compelled Bruegel, in 1567, to make painting about a man who has dedicated himself to persecuting believers who have broken away from his own religious faith? Could his choice be related to the fact that 1567 was the year in which the Duke of Alba arrived in the Netherlands, instructed by the Catholic Philip II of Spain to crush the growing revolt among his Protestant subjects?

Some have identified the black-coated rider as the Duke of Alba; others have drawn attention to how Bruegel has focussed the scene on an army in the process of losing its way, the mountain ahead seemingly impassable.

The Conversion of St Paul, detail
The Conversion of St Paul, detail

Though such political interpretations are disputed, there is surely some significance in the artist choosing to paint a Biblical story that all Christians would have known and understood. The painting would seem to mirror metaphorically the preoccupations of Bruegel’s contemporaries.

The Conversion of St Paul, detail
The Conversion of St Paul, detail

Just at the moment when they were hearing news by the day of the persecution of Christians in the Low Countries, Bruegel paints a Biblical episode that concerns the conversion of an anti-Christian warrior. Moreover, Bruegel has transplanted the scene from the desert road to Damascus, to an Alpine pass through which Saul leads a Renaissance army. Whenever I look at this picture I am reminded of the opening sequence of Werner Herzog’s 1972 film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, about another brutal conquistador who rules with a reign of terror and whose overweening pride and cruelty leads nowhere but to a futile death.

At the end of that film, Aguirre is alone but for a troupe of crazed monkeys on a raft turning endlessly in a great river. Aguirre harangues the monkeys:

I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. Together, we shall rule this entire continent. We shall endure. I am the Wrath of God! Who else is with me?

After five years of repression and more than 5,000 executions in the Netherlands, Philip II decided to change policy and relieve the Duke of Alba. As concessions were offered to the rebels, Alba returned to Spain. In another ten years the Netherlands would be free.

The Procession to Calvary
Bruegel, The Procession to Calvary, 1564
The Procession to Calvary, 1564

The Procession to Calvary is another Biblical scene rendered in a style quite different to that of any other contemporary artist. Once again, the figures which would be the main focus of a conventional approach have almost disappeared among the throngs of people who populate one of Bruegel’s most crowded canvases. As the Counter-Reformation gained momentum, the Catholic church ordered painters to portray saints and the Holy Family in a way that distinguished them from ordinary mortals. Here, and in similar paintings, Bruegel did the very opposite.

The Procession to Calvary, detail : Christ and the cross
The Procession to Calvary, detail : Christ and the cross

The event upon which most artists at the time would have focussed – Christ collapsing under the weight of the cross – is barely visible. When you do locate it you realise that it is, in fact, at the dead centre of the painting.

The Procession to Calvary, detail : the cart with two thieves
The Procession to Calvary, detail : the cart with two thieves

But the incident involving Jesus is given no more weight than anything else happening in the picture. So, just to the right, we see the cart carrying the two thieves who will be crucified alongside Christ. In total, Bruegel has (reportedly, I haven’t counted them) included more than five hundred figures on the canvas. All of them – the thieves, their confessors and the crowds of spectators – are in contemporary dress, with the exception of Jesus and the sacred figures in the foreground.

The Procession to Calvary, detail: the three Marys
The Procession to Calvary, detail: the three Marys
The Procession to Calvary, detail : Mary, mother of Jesus
The Procession to Calvary, detail : Mary, mother of Jesus

Bruegel has separated the figures of the sacred mourners – Mary, mother of Jesus supported by Saint John, Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Cleopas – placing them on a small, rocky plateau in the foreground. Larger than the background figures and isolated from them, the group mourn alone and largely unnoticed by the figures behind them. Discussing this scene, Christian Vohringer writes:

The scene is Bruegel’s anticipation of the theme of redemption by Christ’s death, and it lends the painting a new religious profundity. Nowhere else in the picture are Christian sympathy or the awareness of the historical importance of the event expressed in this way. On the contrary, Bruegel emphasizes the worldly character of the procession as that of a rare spectacle that no-one should miss. Traders, idlers, cheerful shepherds, children and dogs all trail along for the show.

Or, as William Dello Russo succinctly remarks:

The theme of this painting is human indifference.

The Procession to Calvary, detail: just gawping
The Procession to Calvary, detail: just gawping
The Procession to Calvary, detail: the wind blows
The Procession to Calvary, detail: the wind blows

Bruegel suggests that most of those crowding the way to Golgotha are there just to gawp at the bloody spectacle. It’s a sober and totally unsentimental view of his fellow-countrymen. They’re all here if you look closely: the pedlars hawking bread and sweetmeats to nibble while watching someone being crucified, the kids and grown-ups of all social classes, the pickpockets who preyed upon the crowds at such events.

The Procession to Calvary, detail: the mill
The Procession to Calvary, detail: the mill

At the centre is a windmill on top of a fantastical rock. The miller looks down from the painting’s highest point. The idea of the mills of God would have been a familiar one to Bruegel: that no matter how long it takes, he who needs to be punished will be punished. God watches everyone, and the day of reckoning will come – as expressed, centuries later, in Longfellow’s poem, ‘Retribution’:

Though the mills of God grind slowly;
Yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience He stands waiting,
With exactness grinds He all.

At the foot of the rock, a gust of wind means people must hold onto their hats. The wind blows, the wheel turns, and the merry-go-round of life and death moves, too.

The Procession to Calvary, detail: Golgotha
The Procession to Calvary, detail: Golgotha
The Procession to Calvary, detail: wheels and broken bodies
The Procession to Calvary, detail: breaking wheels and broken bodies

Public executions were a familiar feature of 16th century life (indeed, as late as Dickens’s time in this country). Public executions were always well attended occasions which had the air of festivals or carnivals. Bruegel shows the absolute indifference of the gawping crowds to the fear and misery of the condemned men. On the hill of Golgotha, where two crosses have already been erected and men are digging a hole for the third, crowds have already arrived, determined to get a ring-side view.

The Procession to Calvary, detail: the breaking wheel
The Procession to Calvary, detail: the breaking wheel

As the crowds make their way up the hill they pass through a landscape dotted with gallows from which corpses still hang and breaking wheels to which broken bodies, pecked by crows, still cling.

The Procession to Calvary, detail: pressed into service
The Procession to Calvary, detail: pressed into service

In one part of the crowd, soldiers brandishing pikes are arresting Simon of Cyrene, pressing him into service to help Jesus carry his cross. His wife resists energetically. Meanwhile, a regiment of red-jacketed Spanish militiamen, armed with pikes, patrol the crowd and accompany the procession to Calvary. If these soldiers organising the crucifixion are those that his countrymen would have recognised as occupying their land, Bruegel’s painting seems to pose the question: Who is being crucified?

The Procession to Calvary, detail: a self portrait?
The Procession to Calvary, detail: a self portrait?

At the foot of the breaking wheel on the far right of the picture stands a man with a beard who wears a red cap. Some have suggested that it is the painter’s self portrait.

The Procession to Calvary, detail: in the town life goes on
The Procession to Calvary, detail: in the town life goes on
The Tower of Babel
Bruegel, The Tower of Babel, 1563
The Tower of Babel, 1563

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. … And they said, Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

An allegory of the pride of humans who seek to dominate nature and control the world, The Tower of Babel perhaps acquired a special meaning in Flanders in the 1560s: a land used to speaking and trading in many tongues where resentment had flared at the imposition of the rule and language of Spain.

Bruegel knew that Dutch people who saw his painting would be familiar with the story of the Tower of Babel: how King Nimrod set out to build a tower high enough to challenge heaven. He might also have expected them to make a connection between the Biblical story and the hubris of the Spanish in increasing the authority of the Empire in matters of law and taxation, increasing resentment among the nobility and the merchant class. Specifically, in 1528, in the city of Utrecht, Charles V had supplanted the council of guild masters governing the city and ordered the construction of a heavily fortified castle to centralize administration in the Netherlands.

The Tower of Babel, detail: aspiring to heaven
The Tower of Babel, detail: aspiring to heaven

In Genesis, when humans claim the God-like power to reach heaven, God
causes the people to speak in many tongues. Immediately, the project falls apart in a babble of misunderstandings. In the 1560s, Dutch viewers of the painting might have recalled how Charles V’s overseers in Utrecht could not get anyone to carry out their orders, as Flemish workers claimed not to understand their instructions. In 1577, after independence, the people of Utrecht destroyed the castle and its towers with their bare hands.

The Tower of Babel, detail: a contemporary Flemish city
The Tower of Babel, detail: a contemporary Flemish city

The brilliance of this painting, one of Bruegel’s outstanding achievements, is revealed in the details. Bruegel has portrayed the construction work not as an event in the distant or mythical past, but as a contemporary building project, realistic in all its details. It is as if an artist in present-day London had presented the same theme by painting a scene during the construction of the Shard.

The Tower of Babel, detail: city and port
The Tower of Babel, detail: city and port

Bruegel has raised the tower outside a busy Flemish city and bustling seaport. His picture seethes with activity. The tower is crowded with teams of workmen: stonemasons, bricklayers, hauliers and hod-carriers. These human touches transform the metaphor of the Tower into a portrait of everyday life, in which men are engaged in a vast but doomed enterprise.

The Tower of Babel, detail 9

The Tower of Babel, detail 6

The Tower of Babel, details: all the building trades
The Tower of Babel, details: all the building trades

All these details are technically accurate – Bruegel would have seen tread-wheels like those painted here operating in Antwerp, and we can imagine the artist, sketchbook in hand, carefully observing building works of the kind that would have been going on incessantly in this metropolis of world trade at the time (the population of Antwerp almost doubled between 1500 and 1569). However, the architecture of the emerging tower is more reminiscent of Roman buildings, such as the Colosseum which Bruegel would have seen (and might have sketched) while he was in Rome a decade earlier.

The Tower of Babel, detail: Nimrod and the stonemasons
The Tower of Babel, detail: Nimrod and the stonemasons

In the foreground, King Nimrod is inspecting the work of stonemasons, one of whom is down on his knees at the ruler’s feet. Earlier painters had tended to picture Nimrod as a prideful monarch, deserving of God’s punishment. Bruegel presents him – in more familiar terms – merely as a vain dignitary whose arrival simply slows the work.

The Tower of Babel (Rotterdam)
The Tower of Babel (Rotterdam)

There’s another Tower of Babel in Rotterdam. It’s smaller and building work is more advanced with five stories completed. What’s particularly interesting about the second version is that it contains a tiny detail. In this depiction of the story of a tower intended to reach up to heaven – which in Christian tradition was interpreted as a symbol of hubris and arrogance – Bruegel reveals a procession of dignitaries of the Catholic church ascending the ramps of the tower.

The Tower of Babel (Rotterdam), detail: the procession
The Tower of Babel (Rotterdam), detail: the procession

On the opposite wall of the Bruegel room in the Kunsthistorisches Museum is another painting that we know in two versions – The Massacre of the Innocents. We once saw the version in the Royal Collection in London – but that is a ‘censored’ version, so powerful was Bruegel’s attack on the Spanish troops occupying the Netherlands contained in this painting. Today, a label beneath the version in the Kunsthistorisches Museum informs visitors that ‘due to small errors and omissions, and an age test conducted on the wood, though of high quality this is considered to be a copy made by Bruegel’s son, Pieter.’

The original is therefore the one in London, though it has suffered considerable damage from over-painting that redacted Bruegel’s critical images of children slaughtered by Spanish soldiers. But the Vienna picture, even though a studio copy completed by the artist’s son, allows us to see what Bruegel originally intended. Ironically, both versions were once in the collection of Emperor Rudolph II.

The Massacre of the Innocents
Bruegel, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1565-7
Pieter Bruegel the Younger, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1565-7

It’s one of the great Renaissance paintings of Northern Europe. As a cry of rage and despair at oppression and the iniquities of war, it ranks alongside timeless works such as the work of Kathe Kollwitz, Picasso’s Guernica and The Third of May by Goya. Disguised as religious art – a reworking the story told in Matthew of the killing of all newborn boys in Bethlehem at the orders of King Herod – Bruegel relocates the event in a Flemish village, where the massacre is being performed by a band of heavily armed cavalrymen.

Massacre of the Innocents, detail: heavily-armed cavalrymen
The Massacre of the Innocents, detail: heavily-armed cavalrymen

Bruegel would almost certainly have heard of villages being plundered in various parts of Flanders by troops of the occupying Spanish army. Here, a whole family is shown begging with the soldiers for the life of a child; below the church, a father attempts to smuggle his child to safety; distraught mothers lament the murder of their babies in the snow; a group of soldiers probe a pile of babies with their lances to check they are all dead. Family tragedy plays out across the picture in an endless howl of grief.

Massacre of the Innocents, detail: dead and butchered children
The Massacre of the Innocents, detail: dead and butchered children

A decade after Bruegel completed the version of the painting in the Royal Collection, it came into the possession of the Hapsburg Emperor, Rudolph II, who ordered that the details of the massacre be painted out. However, the Vienna version of the painting reveals the massacre as Bruegel painted it, plainly displaying the bodies of dead and butchered children where the London version, bizarrely, shows cheeses, animals, and indeterminate bundles.

Massacre of the Innocents, detail: mothers pleading
The Massacre of the Innocents, detail: mothers pleading

Massacre of the Innocents, detail 7

The Massacre of the Innocents, detail: battering down doors and wresting children from their parent's arms
The Massacre of the Innocents, detail: battering down doors and wresting children from their parent’s arms

We see mothers weeping, and pleading with the soldiers to spare their child. We see soldiers battering down the villagers’ doors, and wresting children from their parent’s arms.

The Massacre of the Innocents, detail: men of high rank, representatives of the Hapsburgs
The Massacre of the Innocents, detail: men of high rank, representatives of the Hapsburgs

What would have especially troubled Rudolph would be the sight of the figures on horseback in red tunics: these are men of high rank, representatives of the Hapsburgs. Bruegel’s picture was an undisguised allusion to atrocities committed in Flanders under the harsh rule of the Spanish branch of his family. This picture must in its own time have been as incendiary as Picasso’s Guernica.

Some have identified the white-bearded, black-clad leader of the horsemen pictured almost at the dead centre of the picture as the Duke of Alba, who led the Spanish forces. However, while it is quite possible that the murderous horsemen referred to Spanish cavalry – who were known for carrying their lances in an upright position – the Duke of Alba’s expedition to repress heresy and crush dissent took place well after the painting of this picture. Bruegel’s painting stands, though, as a powerful condemnation of war and violence.

See also

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