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






Not only Peasants




Bruegel had no inhibitions in this respect. Two figures in his Peasant Wedding Banquet in the barn have their spoons in their mouths, one guest has set the jug to his lips, and the child in the foreground is licking his fingers. The same may be encountered in The Corn Harvest, where the midday break during work in the field means spoon in mouth, jug and dish set to lips.
One might gain the impression that Bruegel was confirming the prejudice against the peasant as a being at the mercy of basic needs, one at whom the man of education might laugh. A closer examination of his figures reveals this to be incorrect, however. Furthermore, executing a large-format painting merely in order to poke fun at someone would contradict the custom of the times: mockery was the realm of cheap prints. Finally, Bruegel has indicated in his picture The Land of Cockaigne (1567) that he was thinking not only of peasants in connection with a dependence upon nourishment. It is not just a peasant we see lying there, but also a noble warrior and a scholar. Bruegel has bedded them down in different ways, the aristocrat sleeping on a cushion, the scholar on a fur cloak, the peasant on the flail with which he threshes the corn. All three have eaten their way through the mountain of porridge; all three have crammed themselves with eggs, meat and poultry before sinking into sleep, their bellies full.



The Land of Cockaigne

A peasant, a knight and a scholar are lying with full bellies under a tree around the trunk of which a tabletop has been fixed. The squire, wearing some pieces of the knight's armour, is keeping watch, hoping that something will fly into his mouth. Behind the fairytale fantasy of the land in which there is nourishment in abundance lies the experience of ever-recurring famine.




The Land of Cockaigne (detail)

You must eat your way through a mountain of porridge to reach the land of Cockaigne, the proverbial "land of milk and honey". There, the fences are made of sausages, the geese lie ready-grilled on the plates, the pigs bring knives with them, and what one might take to be cacti are in fact made of oatcakes.





Attributed to Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Land of Cockaigne
after 1570



The Gloomy Day


Bruegel portrayed the significance of eating over and over again; in doing so, however, he did not draw a veil over the excretion of what had been digested. In several of his paintings, a man may be seen standing against a wall, his back to the observer (e.g. The Massacre of the Innocents, The Gloomy Day, The Census at Bethlehem, or even in a squatting position, presenting the observer with bared buttocks (The Fair at Hoboken, The Magpie on the Gallows).

The Fair at Hoboken, 1559
 Yet the artist remains discreet, leaving women out of such actions, giving no undue prominence to this emptying of the bowels. Nevertheless, the fact that he should consider such a thing at all worthy of depiction distinguishes him from almost all his contemporaries, particularly from the Italians and the so-called "Romanists" who were their pupils.

 The Massacre of the Innocents


The Census at Bethlehem




The Italians and Romanists emphasized what distinguished man from the animal and plant world. Bruegel, in contrast, emphasized their similarities, the natural, "begotten, not made" element in man. In the words of the Creation story, "the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life" (Genesis 2:7) - Bruegel sees not just the divine breath but also the material, the dust of the ground.
This may be observed in many of his pictures, in widely differing motifs. The Wedding Dance in the Open Air (1566) and The Peasant Dance (1568), for instance, convey an impression of vitality, through a whole host of people, movement, and vivid colours. It is not from the head that vitality comes, however, but from the body, from the belly. Bruegel has emphasized the codpieces among the wedding guests; contemporary fashion demanded that one dress up the male sex organs, but the painter has set them off to even greater advantage. Fertility and reproduction are vigorously celebrated in his Wedding Dance in the Open Air.




The Wedding Dance in the Open Air

A picture of bright colours and brilliant colour contrasts, with people in boisterous motion almost to the very edges. Bruegel has painted a company full of scarcely controlled vitality, adding many realistic details: the bridal crown has been affixed to a cloth in the background, in front of which money is being collected on a table, while ditches have been dug out further to the left, on the edges of which the company will sit to eat.




The Wedding Dance in the Open Air (detail)

The bagpipes were considered to exert an especially erotic effect. This portrait of a boisterous dance is a celebration of vitality and fertility. Bruegel has particularly emphasized the codpieces worn by some of the men.





Pieter Bruegel the Younger
Peasant Wedding Dance


The son has produced a variation upon a theme of his father's, and a comparison of the two works sheds light upon the particular vision of the older Bruegel. The father's work reveals a turbulent crowd of people, vitality, potential violence, with the figures seemingly bursting out of the frame. That of the son displays idealized faces and clear groupings, while the rather harmless festivities are held in check by the absence of figures in the areas along the border.






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