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






Antwerp: a Booming City



The Tower of Babel (details)



The Tower of Babel (details)



The "Little" Tower of Babel
c. 1563

Bruegel painted this subject at least three times; we still possess two of the works. The "Big" Tower hangs in Vienna, the "Little" Tower in Rotterdam.
The Christian tradition interprets the tower, which was intended to reach up to heaven, as a symbol of hubris, of arrogance. In the picture from Vienna, it is King Nimrod, and thus the worldly potentate, who is the target of criticism. Here, in the Rotterdam painting, an almost invisible church procession is ascending the ramps: Bruegel is criticizing the Catholic Church.




A picture entitled Babylonian Tower also appears in the surety list of Nicolas Jonghelinck, the Antwerp merchant and financier; however, it is unknown to which version reference was being made. In 1565, Jonghelinck possessed sixteen paintings by Bruegel, and will presumably have been typical of the painter's circle of patrons - wealthy, educated, a member of the elite. Two paintings by Bruegel were also to be found in the possession of Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, one of Spain's most influential representatives in the Netherlands for several years and later a member of the Council of State in Madrid.
We can only assume that many of Bruegel's paintings were commissioned by his patrons, albeit certainly without detailed instructions; in contrast, we may be certain that the majority of his drawings, which served as models for engravings, were executed to order. Bruegel's patron here was Hieronymus Cock, who had works engraved, printed and sold in his Antwerp art-shop, "The Four Winds". Cock will presumably have set out in some detail what he expected. He wanted to serve the market, to fulfil the wishes of his public, and if a picture was by an unknown artist, then he would also occasionally falsify the name for the sake of better marketability, claiming that the picture was the work of a popular artist. Such was Bruegel's experience as a young man: it was he who drew The Big Fish Eating the Little Fish (1557), yet the picture was engraved, printed and put on sale in the name of the Netherlands painter Hieronymus Bosch, who had died in 1516, some ten years before the birth of Bruegel.
Such a deception was quite possible, since Bruegel had produced fantastic figures identical in style to those of his late compatriot. Smaller fish are slithering out of the mouth of a big fish lying on land, themselves giving forth even smaller ones. The big fish is being slit open by a human figure with an enormous knife, on the blade of which the imperial orb is engraved: emperors and kings live at the expense of their subjects just as the more powerful merchants in Antwerp live at the expense of their weaker brethren - the big eat the little. It is a terrible world, one ruled by inhuman, diabolical greed, which the father in his boat is showing his son, and Cock his clients in the markets in Antwerp and the surrounding area.
Only once in Bruegel's paintings do we see how this world, the city of Antwerp, actually looked, and that solely in passing, as the background to Two Monkeys (1562). This puzzling picture is unusually small, measuring a mere 20 x 23 cm. The animals appear to be squatting in the vaulted window of a fortress; they are chained, and nutshells are strewn about. Bruegel could have been thinking of the Netherlands proverb "to go to court for the sake of a hazelnut", in which case the monkeys would have lost their lawsuit and their freedom for the sake of something as unimportant as the kernel of a nut. The work may also reflect the oppressive atmosphere under Spanish rule, or could be seen in connection with Bruegel's departure from Antwerp.
Given the total absence of knowledge regarding the circumstances that prompted this picture, however, the observer would be advised to place all speculation on one side - indeed, as we should usually do - and simply see what the painting is saying to him: the dejection of the creatures, and the temptingly beautiful urban panorama, unattainable for those imprisoned in massive fortress walls.



The Big Fish Eating the Little Fish

 A faceless man is using an oversized knife to slit open the belly of a fish, out of which are slithering other fish which in turn have smaller fish in their mouths. The caption - put into the mouth of the man in the boat with his son - surely referred not only to the fierce competition in Antwerp: '"Look, my son, I've known for a long time that the big fish devours the little one."




Two Monkeys

The significance of the two monkeys, chained and squatting dejectedly, is unclear. In Christian iconography, monkeys generally represented stupidity or such vices as vanity or miserliness. The nutshells refer to a Netherlands proverb, "to go to court for the sake of a hazelnut". This would suggest that the monkeys had risked their freedom for something unimportant. In the background, we see a view of Antwerp from the sea. Bruegel left Antwerp in 1563 to settle in Brussels.




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