Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Catholic-Humanist vision on the fragility of Virtue

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Breda? c. 1525/30-1569 Brussels) died 450 years ago. He lived in a chaotically changing world, not unequal to the today’s changing paradigms, aware of the weakness of human nature.

The Catholic idea of the uncertainty of Salvation, even for the most devout, and many of the other traditional beliefs, dogmas and rites were challenged by the Reformation and by humanist ideas. It initiated the Eighty Years War, at a moment when China, the unto then biggest economy, was definitely superseded by the Western expansion and colonization. Bruegel’s understanding of the deep mysteries of the human soul is remarkable, but it is his unequalled genius in drawing and painting them that created a new genre and new esthetics. He is more actual than most of the contemporary artists in todays’ changing world.

We know little about his life as a painter and draftsman, having the ambition to be a second ‘Hieronymus Bosch’. The virtuoso looseness of his brushwork, his brightly colored palette, creative parsimonious use of paint and above all the distinguished draftsmanship with which he renders peoples movements in superb suggestive landscapes, make him the most important painter of the third quarter of the sixteenth century in Western history. Frans Floris, Pieter Aertsen and Joachim Beuckelaer were his contemporaries at a dramatic period in the Flemish history.

The new humanistic ideas, the Reformation and the extraordinary economic and artistic development of Antwerp as the world’s number one trading place boosted by the discovery of riches of Nueva Espagna (the Americas) created great wealth. From 1566 on, the revolt of the ‘Geuzen’, the iconoclasm and social turmoil challenged the power of the Catholic Spanish Emperor and king Charles V and his son Fillip II, rulers of the Belgian Principality in the then still united 17 provinces of the Low lands. A terrible repression followed. Phillip II had dispatched the duke of Alva, backed by 20.000 fresh Spanish troops, to crush the rebellion.

He initiated the Council of Blood, a court of no appeal, to track down malcontents and heretics. Alva ordered the execution by beheading on the grand Place of Brussels of the counts Egmont and Horne, outstanding military commanders in Spain’s wars against France.

Bruegel’s painting ‘The Magpie on the Gallows (1568)’ shows peasants dancing near them. One’s dramatic end doesn’t stop others people’s fun. It is often suggested that Bruegel was receptive to the new humanist ideas, debated in the learned circles in Antwerp and Brussels, he himself attended. Befriended with the most powerful people of his time, he witnessed all this turmoil without openly taking sides. His paintings tackle the viewer’s own opinion on the matter. As an unblinking realist, he dealt in allegories, proverbs and metaphors as a reflection on this changing world. He owes a lot to Rabelais’ wicked ‘Panurge and the good king Pantagruel’ (1532). This French writer instrumented the same skeptical irony, far from even the smallest hint of intellectualist discourse.

Karel van Mander writes in his Schilderboek (1604) that Bruegel destroyed some of his paintings and drawings at the end of his life, fearing they could create problems for his family after his death. Allusions, visual rebuses and jokes hide double meanings. His patrons, such as the Antwerp collector-liefhebber (amateur) Nicolaes Jongelinck, hung his pictures on the wall of their dining room to provoke table-talk. It was an injunction to look closely to the many funny details contrasting with the main subject. Not the crowded towns but nature in all its splendor and cruel tragedy is the theater of life, as well for the beggar or the rich. Bruegel’s cosmos-centric vision makes the unseen visible in the inner vision of the observer. One’s destiny is in God’s hand. Bruegel celebrates Horace’s adagio: ‘Dulce est disipere in loco’, which Virgil poetically enacted in his ‘Bucolica et Georgica’.

On weekends, Bruegel himself finds pleasure in the simple peasant life on the countryside. As lots of his fellow patricians and aristocrats of Antwerp and Brussels, who spent the weekends in their townhouses outside the town, he liked to mix there with simple people at their feasts and marriages. The elite mocked their uncultured behavior, while feeling at the same time that these peasants had simple pleasures magnifying a few privileged moments of their hard and merciless life. The Flemish geographer Abraham Ortelius (1573) writes: ‘Bruegel’s paintings are not art but nature’. But, his art is more than nature. It’s an ideal illusion born in the viewer’s inner vision, a singular conference with the Almighty. None of his paintings reveal something about Bruegel himself, so everything is left open to the viewer’s and art historical speculation.

Karel van Mander tells us that the Habsburg emperor in Prague possessed a painting of an enraged shrew ‘carrying away plunder in the face of Hell’. This fierce-looking woman in armour, disproportionally large in size, holding a frying pan as the ultimate weapon, ‘Dulle Griet’ (Mad, Angry, Raging Meg, 1563), strides up to the entrance of Hell, followed by a band of female warriors, looting and rampaging. Leen Huet proposes to see her as an allegorical representation of a female man-wife wearing figuratively the trousers. These giant figures were carried around in the Flemish procession and still are. One such is documented in a play performed by the Mechelen chamber ‘De Lisbloem’ at the 1561 Antwerp Landjuweel (a competition between Rhetorician Chambers of moralizing plays). Therefore, Bruegel’s paintings are not only about devotion, life and death but also about burlesque plays and ‘kluchten (droleries)’.

Death is nevertheless the main and unavoidable concern for all of us. On his travels in Sicily, passing by the Palazzo Sclaffani at Palermo, Bruegel might have seen there an al fresco painting attributed to Francesco Traini (c. 1350), The Triumph of Death. As well as The Dance Macabre, which originated in France in the XVth century, these subjects illustrate the medieval ‘Memento Mori reflection’: ‘What you are, we once were; and what we are, you too will be!’. Death without sacraments is far worse than a mere passing from earthly to eternal life. It’s the mother of all wars. Death is the only victor. In a seraphic clear blue sky, gracious and elegant angels crush atrocious heretic monsters, virtue and Salvation face evil and Hell. Is his painting the ‘Fall of the Rebel Angels’ (1562) an illustration of the persecution of the Protestant heretics? It will remain a supposition.

In the same year he painted ‘The Triumph of the Death’, a year later ‘Dulle Griet’. In none of this three paintings, any sign of Salvation is visible.

What were Bruegel’s real convictions and opinions? For sure, he remained a devout Catholic, having access to the High Society of his time. His name appeared for the first time in the archives of the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp in 1551. His Italian journey (probably 1552-53) brought him through France to Rome and to Sicily.

Back in Antwerp he realizes preparatory drawings for landscape engravings published by the Antwerp editor Hieronymus Cock. From 1560 on he worked in Brussels, where he married the daughter of his supposed master, Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1520-1550). Initially he created essentially landscape paintings, drawings and engravings. Later he turned to religious and satirical subjects.
He became the founding father of three generations of an artistic dynasty, multiplying his standard models endlessly. Secular and profane prints, known then as the ‘low arts’, functioned in the Late Middle Ages and the Early renaissance as patterns for other arts as well as sources for entertainment, curiosity and moral teachings. Concentrating on foolish, passionate and sinful behavior, they were a mirror of human folly idleness and depravity. The start of Carnival is still nowadays the apotheosis of a world upside-down. All hierarchy and good sense is challenged by all, but just for one day. ‘The Battle between Carnival and Lent (1559)’ represents a cleverly distributed visual chaos all over the composition. Each of the myriads of details is important. The fat Carnival represents idleness and ignorance, Lent is a meager, mental-anorexic poor woman. Around her, happy children make music, unaware of their destiny. Idleness confronts melancholy.

Some subjects in Bruegel’s paintings, engravings and drawings cross the barrier of decency, representing grotesque and scatological scenes. Women were seen as temptresses incarnate, subjugating and deceiving men. Carousing peasants rather feast at Festivals than work on their land. Outcasts, beggars, blinds, cripples and quacks illustrate ‘humanity abandoning itself to the sins of flesh and folly’. The extraordinary realistic rendering of the minutiae of these satirical scenes of every-day life add to the implication of the viewer in the moral and didactic purpose of the subject.

The ‘Parable of the Blind’ in the Naples National Museum of Capodimonte is probably Bruegel’s ultimate painting. A grey and overcast day in autumn in the Brabant village of Sint Anna-Pede (12 km outside Brussels). Six blind men trudge in a single file near a swampy river. The, today still existing, church is visible in the background as a vertical element of Hope. To well-dressed to be beggars, they are probably itinerant musicians, as the hurdy-gurdy lute operated by a crank held by the fallen one, illustrates. Linked to one another, holding their walking sticks, shoulders and hands, they are unaware of the danger. They head down the slope towards disaster and the swamp. Their leader falls backwards in it, the second stumbles over him. The four other have certainly heard the cries of the fallen. For a contemporary medical doctor as Guy de Chauliac, blindness was caused by ‘corrupt fumes, mounting from the stomach to the brain’. He advises that a person, having eaten clove, cinnamon, fennel, anise, coriander and nuts of maguette, gently breaths into the blind eye to cure it. The clinical observation by an ophthalmologist reveals different kinds of blindness for each of Bruegel’s blind men. For example, the one in the center suffers from leucoma; the following one, the head turned upwards looking for the light, is victim of an atrophy of the eye globes causing the deterioration of the optical nerve.

Bruegel’s real story is all and true to life, holding his audience’s attention. The moral is left up to the viewer. Are these itinerant musicians blind to Catholic faith? It illustrates the New Testament’s harsh warning (Matthew 15:14 and Luke 6:39) for those not following Christ: ‘And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch’. One of the stumbling blind wears a rosary, another a crucifix, but to no avail. The meaning of Bruegel’s paintings is moralizing, but very few literary symbols are present. It is more the strangeness of the associated elements often opposing each other, such as the weapons and a frying pan in the Dulle Griet, that creates a dramatic tension between morals and irony. We are all only humans and therefore far from perfect. Bruegel renders this human tragedy as a skeptical pessimist leaning often towards a cynic vision, knowing too well the human nature. Unescapable tied to the physical laws, the fall of the blind was unforeseeable for themselves, obvious for the viewer. But, only God knows what lies ahead for him.

Also today we are without guidance. All actual problems provoke more questions than answers. After 400 years, the downfall of the Chinese economy ended and its Empire is aiming to dominate the world. It is now threatening the Western dominant position in many domains and progressing rapidly. Bruegel’s pictorial heritage teaches us that extreme ideas, imperialistic ambitions, greed and wars only create great human suffering. We did not learn much from History.

Univ. Prof. Dr. Jan De Maere
University of Art&Design, Cluj-Napoca