the Elder

1525 - 1569

Peasants, Fools and Demons


Renaissance Art Map
Pieter Bruegel the Elder  Peasants, Fools and Demons
    A Brief Life in Dangerous Times
    Antwerp: a Booming City
    The Holy Family in the Snow
    Exploring the World
    Demons in Our Midst
    Village Life
    Nature as Man's Environment
    Not only Peasants
    Pieter the Droll?
    Life and Work






A Brief Life in Dangerous Times




We may suppose that two other paintings also contained sensitive political material. Both of them give particular emphasis to a black figure on horseback. The new ruler in the Netherlands was known as "Black" Alba on account of his clothing and cast of mind. Both paintings depict religious scenes: The Conversion of Saul (1567) and The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem (c. 1566).
Bruegel has shifted the scene of the conversion into the mountains. Soldiers armed with spears are advancing upwards out of a valley; in the distance one can make out the sea. It is possible to distinguish, relatively small but in the middle of the picture, the figure of a rider who has fallen from his horse. According to the biblical account (Acts 9), the Roman officer Saul was on his way to Damascus to arrest Christians there. As he approached the city, a flash of light blazed around him and threw him to the ground. He heard a divine voice, was converted to Christianity, and took the name of Paul from that moment on. The light from heaven and the city are missing from Bruegel's work; instead, the painter has depicted the sea and the mountains. It was from the sea, from the Italian coast, that Alba and his soldiers came, their route thus necessitating a crossing of the Alps. A black figure sitting on a white horse and seen from the rear is placed in such a way that he must surely see the fall of the other rider. One possible interpretation: the painter hopes that Alba, known as a ruthless persecutor of heretics, will be converted on his way to the Netherlands. The painting is dated 1567 - the year after the "breaking of the images", the year in which Alba and his army entered the Netherlands.
The second painting portrays the killing of all the little boys in Bethlehem, Christ's birthplace. Herod, governor of the Roman occupying power, had ordered the massacre of the children because he felt threatened by the unknown "newborn King of the Jews". Once again, Bruegel has set the biblical story in his own time and country. Soldiers are forcing their way into the houses of a snowbound village, tearing the children from the arms of their mothers - wintry stillness on the one hand, murder and manslaughter on the other. A menacing troop of riders in grey armour looks on, headed by an officer in black. Like Alba, he has a long white beard.
A rider with the Habsburg double eagle on his chest is standing a little way away from the troop; the villagers have turned to him, pleading with him. Philip was of the House of Habsburg; his half-sister, Margaret of Parma, formerly Regent of the Netherlands, had been stripped of power by Alba. It is conceivable that the observer is being asked to differentiate between the ruthless commander and the Habsburg Regent.
We do not know whether or to what extent Bruegel was actively involved in the resistance against Spanish Catholic rule. After all, Cardinal Granvelle, one of Philip II's advisors, also purchased works from him. However, the painter maintained a distanced, critical position; that much may be deduced from his circle of acquaintances and the first biography of Bruegel, which appeared in 1604. His biographer, Carel van Mander, tells us that, on his deathbed, Bruegel instructed his wife to burn certain drawings, since their captions "were all too biting and full of scorn..." The painter acted in this way, van Mander adds, "either because he regretted having done them or because he feared that they could have unpleasant consequences for his wife."
Pieter Bruegel the Elder died on 5th September 1569, two years after Alba had entered Brussels and in the year in which the resistance of the Netherlanders turned to open rebellion. In January, according to official records, the Brussels city council had released him from his obligation to have Spanish soldiers billeted on him, "so that he may be enabled to continue his activities and his work in this city. "Were there Spaniards living in his studio? Did he need looking after because of some serious illness? An indication of prolonged sickness is the fact that no dated works survive from the last year of his life.
Van Mander comments with regard to one of Bruegel's last pictures, The Magpie on the Gallows (1568), that "he bequeathed his wife a picture with a magpie on a gallows. He was referring by the magpie to the gossips, whom he would like to see hanged." It could be that gossips had harmed him to such an extent in his private life that he wished them dead. It is also possible, however, that Bruegel was thinking of informers, Alba's system of terror being based upon secret denunciations. The gallows also suggests political associations. The Spanish authorities had ordered in 1566 that "predicants" were to be hanged. "Predicants" were preachers who spread Protestant doctrine, an activity punishable by death. In contrast to death by the sword or by fire, death on the gallows was regarded as dishonourable. This dispensation thus linked it to the Spanish Catholic rulers in a particularly bitter manner.



The Conversion of Saul

A biblical motif with political overtones. The painter has set Saul's conversion to Paul in a mountain landscape. The sea may be seen in the distance.
It was from there, from the Italian coast, that the Spanish troops set off to cross the Alps, their task to drive out the heretics and crush Netherlands
efforts to obtain more freedom.




The Conversion of Saul (detail)

Bruegel has given particular prominence to a black rider seen from the rear, who is observing the fallen Saul.
The painter was presumably hoping that the reputedly terrible "Black" Alba would undergo conversion.




The Slaughter of the Innocents
Oil on panel, 111 x 160 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The Bible tells us that King Herod ordered the killing of all newborn boys in Bethlehem. Bruegel has placed the scene in a Netherlands village. A group of armoured horsemen are supervising the slaughter. It was one of the characteristics of Spanish troops that they held their lances in an absolutely upright position. The troop's leader, clad in black and with a long white beard, is presumably intended as a reference to the Duke of Alba.




The Slaughter of the Innocents (detail)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna



The Magpie on the Gallows




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