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



The Peasant Dance

The running and jumping steps of the village-square dance have nothing in common with the formal dances performed at court or in bourgeois circles. Nor do we find here the care for and adornment of one's face customary in more elevated circles, by means of which supposed faults of nature were to be corrected.




The Peasant Dance (detail)




The Peasant Dance (detail)



A further example is The Parable of the Blind (1568). This painting is not packed with colourful movement; rather, it is dominated by a diagonal running towards the lower right-hand corner. We observe a row of men, successively losing their footing and tumbling to the ground as if in slow motion. There are no provoking contrasts of colour; the range is reduced to shades of brown and bluish grey. Whereas the dance portrayed "joie de vivre", here we are presented with misery and the end. The blind leading the blind referred in literature, and presumably also in everyday language, to foolishness or wrong behaviour. "And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch," Christ is supposed to have said (Matthew 15: 14). He was referring to the Pharisees, whereas Bruegel takes the proverb literally: blindness diminishes man, robbing him of his orientation in the world. The artist portrays, with a brutality unequalled in any of his other works, how helpless and exposed to disaster someone is who, while having a body, is unable to use his head properly.
It would thus be erroneous to claim that Bruegel was celebrating solely the vitality in man, solely that quality disparagingly termed "animal", solely that realm which is also filled with violence or inhabited by demons. His demons are naked; they tear open their bellies, reveal their innards, point their buttocks at the observer; they are only body and digestive organs, without spirit. In contrast, his people are dressed and therefore civilized. Bruegel gives them neither noble faces nor a form prettified in accordance with some intellectual concept, as are the features encountered in works painted in Rome, Florence and Venice. Bruegel demonstrates that the natural, uncivilized realm of man is a constituent element of his natural make-up, and the basis of his existence. No body means no soul. Man rises above Nature, yet is also a part of it.



The Parable of the Blind

It was only later that Bruegel's pictures received their titles: they have since undergone change in the course of the centuries, most of the works being known today under a number of names. That given this work - which is also known as The Fall of the Blind- refers to Christ's parable concerning the Pharisees
(Matthew 15:14): "And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch."






The Parable of the Blind (details)




The Parable of the Blind (details)

Blind people roamed the country in groups begging; they were part of the street scene. Bruegel has painted them with no trace of sympathy, but so accurately that it is possible for doctors today to diagnose the various eye disorders or the causes of blindness: the man on the left is suffering from leucoma of the cornea (so-called "wall-eye"), and the one on the right from amaurosis, while the eyeballs of the blind man in the detail below have been gouged out, perhaps as punishment, perhaps in connection with an argument.




At the end of his life, Bruegel was to display once more in a landscape painting, The Magpie on the Gallows (1568), this attachment to and affinity with everything that grows and passes. Once again, the observer is looking down from an elevated point upon woods, meadows, cliffs, and a river reaching the sea just below the line of the horizon. We could perhaps speak here of a Bruegelian standard motif. A watermill stands in the valley. The picture is framed by lofty trees towering up on both sides.
Here again, as in his early paintings, the artist has populated the broad landscape with the little figures of people - people dancing, making music, strolling, chatting, one person in the left-hand foreground relieving himself with exposed buttocks. We might be reminded of the Stoics, of their statement to the effect that man seems small if he considers "the entire eternity and size of the whole world". Yet Bruegel goes a step further. His figures all have similar faces; they are not to be recognized as individuals; they appear clumsy living things - and the distance separating them from the animal and plant worlds seems insignificant. Not only are they small; in Bruegel's specific way, they are also integrated into Nature, safe and secure in the artist's expanse of landscape.
The Magpie on the Gallows is the painting Bruegel is believed to have left to his wife, with the comment that he was referring by magpies to the gossips he would like to see hanged. As already mentioned, the gallows was specifically associated with Spanish rule, the authorities having earmarked a shameful death by hanging for the "predicants", the preachers who were spreading the new Protestant doctrine. And Alba's regime of terror was based upon "gossip" or denunciation. The proverbial expression "to shit at the gallows" means that someone is unconcerned (cf. modern English "not to give a shit") about death and the authorities; "dancing under the gallows" was said of someone who either did not see danger or was not afraid of it.
Bruegel was thus presenting his picture of man and simultaneously commenting upon the political situation. His works certainly had no direct political effect, if for no other reason than the fact that they disappeared into private collections. It is by no means impossible, however, that they may have indirectly strengthened the Netherlands feeling of autonomy, thanks to his painting scenes from the life of his countrymen rather than from the world of classical mythology, and to his emphasizing the earthly element in man and his close attachment to Nature, instead of idealizing him in accordance with the Mediterranean concept.



The Magpie on the Gallows

Following his customary practice, Bruegel painted a further landscape view in the year before his death. He depicted a plain with fertile meadows and fields, people cheerfully dancing, and a village lying concealed in the shadow of a clifftop castle. The painting conveys the impression of harmony and peace, disturbed only by the gallows in the centre. Unlike death by the sword, death on the gallows was considered dishonourable. And yet a man at bottom left is acting according to the proverb "to shit at the gallows", meaning that he is not concerned about death and the authorities, while "dancing under the gallows" was employed to describe someone who either did not see danger or was not afraid of it.




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