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




We may learn a great deal about an artist by identifying the things he does not paint. As far as we are aware, Bruegel painted no portraits on commission, nor - even more significant - any nudes. The nude human body had been a favourite subject since the Renaissance. Artists vied with each other in their search for the perfect body, and young painters in the 16th century were advised to construct an ideal figure from the particularly beautiful limbs of different persons, that they might thereby "achieve a harmony such as Nature only seldom affords."16 People should be more perfect than Nature, for - as one argument ran - man is made in God's image, and it is the task of the artist to bring out this similarity.
In Bruegel's art, by contrast, the only naked beings are demons. His people are dressed and often so wrapped up that their bodies are quite unrecognizable - a far cry from the well-proportioned or elegantly stretched figures of the Italians and their followers in Spain and the north.
Of the portraits ascribed to him, only one is indisputably by Bruegel: the Head of a Peasant Woman (after 1564). This work, like with many figures in his other paintings, reveals his great talent for capturing faces. We may be sure that Bruegel did not lack requests for portraits, the newly wealthy citizens being all too eager to have themselves and their families immortalized in this manner. However, he was evidently unwilling to bother himself with that sort of thing.




Head of a Peasant Woman
after 1564

Bruegel painted no commissioned portraits, nor any of prominent contemporaries. He was uninterested in any cult of personality. However, this portrait of a peasant woman reveals just how capable he was of portraying faces with highly individual features.




The emphasis upon the importance of the individual, which emerged in the Renaissance did not fit in with his artistic concept. Indeed, Bruegel often hid the faces of the figures in his drawings and paintings, rendering them unrecognizable as individuals. Of the six persons in the foreground of the drawing Summer (1568), only one face is visible, and that foreshortened; in The Beekeepers and the Birdnester (c. 1568), the observer feels it was precisely this display of anonymity which so attracted Bruegel.
A similar tendency may be observed in his biblical figures. He pushes them to one side, or hides them between secular figures of the same size. Thus we encounter Mary and Joseph in the village square, St. John the Baptist with Christ in a crowd of people, and the Adoration of the Kings behind a curtain of falling snow. Over 30 of some 45 pictures by (or attributed to) Bruegel are characterized by Nature, by the village and its peasants; the anonymous representatives of the rural lower stratum become the principal characters in his oeuvre.
No painter before him had dared produce such works. Contemporary art generally regarded peasants as figures of mockery, considering them stupid, gluttonous, drunken, and prone to violence. It is as such that they appear in satirical poems, tales, and Shrovetide plays: as a well-known negative type, an object of laughter. They were used by authors to amuse the reader, and also to warn him to beware of bad qualities and wrong behaviour.





Here, too, Bruegel has avoided depicting people as individuals, hiding or foreshortening the faces and concentrating upon the human body at work.




The Beekeepers and the Birdnester
c. 1568

Bruegel will have found a special attraction in the opportunity offered him by the beekeepers of portraying them as anonymous, faceless people.
Honey was the most important sweetener in those days. The colonies of bees were smoked out in autumn; the peasants would then catch new colonies in spring.




As has already been observed, a desire to warn and instruct is still regarded by some as the primary aim of Bruegel's work. Yet we must ask if The Peasant Wedding Banquet (1568) in the barn - to take but one example - was really painted with the intention of keeping the observer from gluttony. Men and women are sitting solemnly and thoughtfully at table; the helpers are carrying round a simple porridge on a door which has been taken off its hinges; the bride is sitting motionless under her bridal crown. On the right, a monk is conversing with a gentleman dressed in black. Though wine or beer is being poured into jugs in the foreground, there is no trace of drunkenness or gluttony among the wedding party. Indeed, they do not even appear particularly cheerful. Eating is portrayed as a serious activity. Moreover, the wall of straw or unthreshed corn and the crossed sheaves with a rake serve to keep in mind the labour by which the food is wrested from the soil.
In Bruegel's time, such a scene depicting people at table will have reminded observers of the Wedding at Cana, as described in the second chapter of St. John's Gospel. The story of Christ turning water into wine was often referred to in contemporary works. Traditional representations required a large company at table and - as in Bruegel's painting - a man filling jugs. Jesus and the wedding guests were not portrayed in the act of eating, however - not even in those instances where the artist had shifted the wedding to his own time.
It was a fundamental given in Bruegel's century that saints, nobles and burgher families were never depicted eating; they might be shown sitting at table, but were not allowed to touch the fare before them, nor even to open their mouths, let alone put anything into them. This drawing a veil over the act of eating must have been in accordance with an unwritten rule. In all probability, people found it disconcerting to be reminded of the fact that no-one, no matter how rich, or how powerful, or how spiritual he may be, can live without nourishment - for eating reminds us of our dependence upon Nature, our dependence upon our digestive organs. This was at odds with a concept of art in which man was idealized, one seeking to make man in God's image, to render him a superior individual.



The Peasant Wedding Banquet

The bride is sitting under her bridal crown; it is unclear which of the others is the bridegroom. The feast is taking place in the barn, the wall behind the guests consisting of stacked-up straw or corn. Two ears of corn with a rake call to mind the work that harvesting involves. The plates are being carried around on a door taken off its hinges. The principal form of nourishment in those days consisted of bread, porridge and soup.














Paolo Veronese
The Wedding at Cana
Painters who idealized people as beautiful or cerebral beings did not depict them eating -no spoon or bite to eat on its way mouthwards was visible; instead, people sat chatting in front of their plates. Quite the opposite was true in the case of Bruegel, who emphasized the material existence of people, showing the body's need of nourishment.

The Peasant Wedding Banquet




The Peasant Wedding Banquet




The Peasant Wedding Banquet




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