Pieter Bruegel the Elder

by Johanna Fischer-Wellenborn  

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – A Short Tour of the Collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: (born 1525/1530 probably in Breda, Netherlands – died 1569 in Brussels) was a painter of the Dutch Renaissance and is best known for his depictions of peasant life, which is why he is also called “Peasant Bruegel”. There are different spellings of his name, partly because he first signed his works with “Brueghel”, but later with “Bruegel”. We know very little about Pieter Bruegel’s life. He was probably a pupil of Pieter Coeck van Aelst in Antwerp and later worked there in the important copper workshop of Hieronymus Cock. From 1552 he spent three years in Italy before returning to Antwerp, where he continued to work in Cock’s workshop.

In 563 he married the daughter of his former teacher, Maria Coecke van Aelst in Brussels. With her he had two sons: Pieter the younger was born in 1564, Jan in 1568; with them he later founded the Brueghel dynasty of artists. Pieter (also called “Hell Brueghel”) was strongly oriented towards his father’s style and made many copies of his father’s works. Jan (later called “Jan Brueghel the Elder”, also called “Flower Brueghel”) developed a personal, miniature style early on. By the early 17th century he had become the most important cabinet painter in Antwerp. Jan’s son and five of his seven sons also worked as painters.

but none of their descendants achieved such fame as Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s characteristic style is difficult to define with a single stylistic term such as Mannerism. His model was certainly Hieronymus Bosch, a late Gothic or early Renaissance painter known for his fantastic painting and simultaneous realism. His influence can be clearly seen above all in Bruegel’s early works, but also in his later “Satanically” inspired works (such as in Die Dulle Griet or the Angel’s Fall). In addition to peasant subjects, Pieter Bruegel the Elder worked on numerous religious themes and created a large number of allegorical works in which he depicted proverbs (e.g. The Dutch Proverbs), folk customs or humanistic values. Most of the paintings are extremely rich in figures and are characterised by the depiction of numerous minute details. Seemingly banal events and scenes are made the main subject. Bruegel’s landscape paintings, in which the depiction of nature is in the foreground, are also famous.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna houses the world’s most important collection of Brueghel works. It was part of the private collection of Emperor Rudolf II, who had taken over a large part of the paintings from his brother Ernst, once governor in the Netherlands. Some of Bruegel the Elder’s most famous paintings, such as Winter, the Peasant Wedding or the Battle between Carnival and Fasting, as well as the Tower of Babel, can be admired here every day in the original.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – A Short Tour of the Collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

Bruegel is considered one of the main representatives of landscape painting in the 16th century. So-called “monthly pictures”, which usually depict the peasant work typical of the respective month, have existed since the Middle Ages. Bruegel took up this genre, but instead of twelve he painted only six monthly pictures and combined two months in each picture. This corresponded to the six seasons that were distinguished in the Netherlands at that time. The large-format paintings were originally intended for the country estate “t’goed ter Beke” of the businessman and collector Nicolaes Jonghelinck in the “Marggravelei” near Antwerp. It is assumed that they were part of the dining room decoration there. They later came as a gift to Archduke Ernst on his arrival in Antwerp.

Of these six monthly pictures, three are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna: Early Spring (or The Gloomy Day), Autumn (or Homecoming of the Herd) and Winter (or Hunters in the Snow). Spring is considered lost, Summer (or Haymaking) is in the Palais Lobkowitz in Prague, and High Summer or Early Autumn (or Corn Harvest) is in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York. In each case, fantasy landscapes are depicted and different colours predominate in each pair of months: Dark brown and yellow in early spring, yellow, ochre and brown in autumn and white, black and blue in winter.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Early Spring or The Gloomy Day, 1565, © KHM-Museumsverband; link to the image

In Bruegel’s Late Winter or Early Spring, activities typical of this season are depicted, such as gathering wood or cutting willow rods. In the right foreground, some details such as the child’s paper crown, the waffles, the lantern, the men’s disguise with a cauldron put over their heads and the broom covered with candles – this motif also appears in Brueghel’s Struggle between Carnival and Lent – are still reminiscent of carnival. The rather gloomy depiction of bare nature that is still about to blossom – in the Netherlands at that time the New Year began on 1 March – is to be understood as the beginning of the cycle of paintings.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Autumn or Homecoming of the Flock, 1565, © KHM-Museumsverband; link to the image

In autumn, the theme is the driving down of the mountain pastures, an important event in peasant life that is actually untypical for the Netherlands. Perhaps Brueghel is depicting impressions he gained on his journey through Switzerland when he returned to Antwerp from his stay in Italy. In the other two paintings, Early Spring and Winter, Alpine mountains can also be seen in the background.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Winter or Hunter in the Snow, 1565, © KHM-Museumsverband; link to the image

The most famous of the monthly pictures is Winter. In the foreground is a group of hunters with their exhausted hounds returning to their village, which lies in the valley below. The only fox they have killed is hanging on their spit. To the left behind them, a fire is being lit in front of an inn for the singeing of a pig. The inn sign reads “Dit is inden Hert” (“To the Deer”) and shows St. Eustace, the patron saint of hunters. The fact that it hangs crookedly could be interpreted as an allusion to the less successful hunt. A tiny bird trap is depicted near the centre. At that time, farmers were only allowed to hunt foxes, hares and birds. In the lower right corner the wheel of a water mill is frozen in thick ice, next to it a brushwood gatherer is crossing a bridge. Cheerful details like the tiny skaters in the background have contributed to the painting’s popularity. If you look closely, you can also see people playing one-hockey and shooting curling. (Colt was the name given to the game of shooting a ball as far or as close as possible to a target using a wooden stick. It could be seen as a precursor of ice hockey or – after it was also played on grass – of golf. In klootschieten, a wooden disc was to be carried as close as possible to a target, a game that is basically known to us today as curling). The painting is dominated by black and white, as well as shades of blue and grey, evoking the impression of wintry cold and deprivation. The painting probably depicts December and January and thus concludes the series of monthly pictures. It is often cited in connection with the so-called “Little Ice Age” in Central Europe, whereby the winter of 1564/1565 in particular is said to have been particularly cold.

Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow is the first and most important winter painting in European painting. The films Melancholia by Lars von Trier, Solaris by Andrei Tarkowski and Homecoming of the Hunters by Michael Kreihsl also made the painting known to cinema audiences.

Representations of peasant folk customs: The peasant wedding and The struggle between carnival and fasting

Bruegel is considered one of the main representatives of landscape painting in the 16th century. So-called “monthly pictures”, which usually depict the peasant work typical of the respective month, have existed since the Middle Ages. Bruegel took up this genre, but instead of twelve he painted only six monthly pictures and combined two months in each picture. This corresponded to the six seasons that were distinguished in the Netherlands at that time. The large-format paintings were originally intended for the country estate “t’goed ter Beke” of the businessman and collector Nicolaes Jongelinck in the “Marggravelei” near Antwerp. It is assumed that they were part of the dining room decoration there. They later came as a gift to Archduke Ernst on his arrival in Antwerp.

Of these six monthly pictures, three are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna: Early Spring (or The Gloomy Day), Autumn (or Homecoming of the Herd) and Winter (or Hunters in the Snow). Spring is considered lost, Summer (or Haymaking) is in the Palais Lobkowitz in Prague, and High Summer or Early Autumn (or Corn Harvest) is in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York. In each case, fantasy landscapes are depicted and different colours predominate in each pair of months: Dark brown and yellow in early spring, yellow, ochre and brown in autumn and white, black and blue in winter.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Peasant Wedding, 1568, © KHM-Museumsverband; link to the image

 

In Brueghel’s Peasant Wedding, simple peasant life is the central theme. The wedding table of a Flemish peasant wedding is depicted, at which the groom was traditionally not allowed to be present or at any rate was not seated at the same table. (The bride and groom were only brought together on the evening of the wedding). The guests are seated on simple wooden benches and stools at the white-covered table in a large barn. The bride can be seen in front of a green wall hanging to which a paper crown is attached. In her hair she wears a wedding wreath. Her eyes are closed, her hands folded, making her look impassive. According to custom, before a lifetime of work, at least on the day of her wedding, she should literally “not lift a finger”, nor eat or speak, but rest. That is why the old Flemish proverb says “He has come with the bride” and means someone who wants to shirk work. For the last time, the bride is allowed to show her long, loose hair in public before it goes “under the bonnet”. Only the notary sits in a comfortable armchair with fur-trimmed jacket and beret. Next to him, a Franciscan friar and a Spanish-dressed landowner with his dog (far right) are visible. Two bagpipers provide music, one staring longingly at the food being carried in on a hung door. A spoon is fastened in the hat of the food-carrier in front, marking him as an itinerant worker. (Spoons were still round at that time, oval shapes were only introduced later when the view became accepted that it was more genteel not to open the mouth too wide when eating. Forks were not yet common in the 16th century; people used spoons, their hands or their own knives). The porridges are very modest, the rather clumsy posture of the bearers gives the impression that very simple to poor conditions are depicted here. The child in the foreground has already eaten his bowl.

It is depictions like this that made Pieter Bruegel the Elder also known as “Peasant Bruegel”.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Fight between Carnival and Fasting, © KHM-Museumsverband; link to the image

 

In the struggle between Carnival and Lent, Bruegel shows Dutch customs that are actually documented in the 15th and 16th centuries during Carnival and Lent. However, the fact that the two consecutive periods are depicted here side by side is unusual and Brueghel’s invention.

In a densely populated square, a tournament-like jousting between the carnival and Lent seasons is shown. On the left, the carnival rides a barrel, well-fed and cheerful, with a roasting spit in his hand as a weapon. On the right, the gaunt, emaciated figure of Lent aims a baker’s shovel and two herrings at her opponent. She wears a penitent’s robe and a beehive as headgear and sits on a church pew pulled by a monk and a maid on a processional cart. Behind her, worshippers are stepping out of a church. On the left side of the picture, which is assigned to carnival, people are enjoying themselves with carnival customs in front of two inns. Some figures break through the boundaries and mingle in the hustle and bustle, such as the decrepit beggars next to the inn or the playing children next to the church. Individual details such as the small man dressed in a carnival costume in the centre of the picture, carrying a burning torch in broad daylight, make the picture particularly amusing. In literature, the figure is often interpreted as an allusion to the “topsy-turvy world” in which Protestants and Catholics warred, just as Bruegel experienced in his time in the Netherlands. Since for the Protestants faith alone counted and people did not first have to prove themselves before God through penance, abstinence and good works, they abolished Lent, which the Catholics considered immoral and morally depraved. It could also be that Bruegel is referring to Augustine’s two-state model, according to which there is a divine state (civitas dei) and a devil’s state (civitas diaboli) in the world and Carnival thus stands for sinful pleasures and Lent for repentance, penance and piety.

Religious Works: The Tower of Babel

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Tower of Babel, 1563, © KHM-Museumsverband; link to the image

 

The Tower of Babel is a text from the First Book of Moses in the Old Testament (Gen. 11, 1 – 9). It describes the enterprise of the people to build a huge tower with a top reaching up to heaven, which is why they are punished by God for their arrogance with confusion of language. Due to the insurmountable difficulties of communication, the builders are forced to abandon the project and subsequently scatter all over the earth. The word “Babel” sounds similar to the Hebrew word “balal”, which means “to confuse”. Bruegel seems to have been very interested in this theme, and two of the paintings he created on the subject have survived, the so-called “Great Tower”, which is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, being the better known of the two. (The so-called “Small Tower Building” can be seen in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam). A third, small work, which was painted on ivory, is lost.

In the Great Tower, Bruegel transposes the biblical scene to his own time and home. Antwerp in the 16th century was one of the fastest growing cities and leading trading city in Western Europe. There was a great influx of people and an enormous building boom. North-south traffic and overseas trade played an important role. Fabrics were sold and shipped, there was trade in spices from the Orient, but also in wood and grain, and there were many foreigners who spoke a language unknown to the Dutch and were conspicuous by their strange clothing. In addition, there was the emerging fragmentation of Christianity due to the consequences of the Reformation. The people of Antwerp possibly felt reminded of the Babylonian Tower, and this is probably also to be understood as a symbol of the fears in the rapid upswing. The theme has never been depicted as frequently as in Bruegel’s time and the following decades.

In the “Great Tower”, the city behind the building – like Antwerp – is surrounded by walls and is situated at a harbour where there is busy shipping traffic. The flat landscape in the background is reminiscent of the plains of Flanders. The tiny houses underline the mighty dimensions of the tower. Seven of the eight storeys have already been completed and look very solid at first sight. The Colosseum in Rome, where Bruegel actually visited during his stay in Italy, probably served as a model for the construction. However, if one takes a closer look at the tower, it becomes clear that this architecture is structurally grossly flawed. There are several construction faults, the storeys only seem to support each other, they rather pull themselves upwards like a snail shell, so that the tower will probably have to collapse sooner or later – the enterprise is thus doomed to failure from the very beginning! As in his other works, Bruegel describes minute details here with great attention to detail, thus passing on to us valuable information about the living conditions and working methods of the time. On the ramp of the tower, for example, a mighty crane can be seen; three men tread in the front drum, three others – invisible to the viewer – in the rear drum, to pull up a stone that has been cut to size. A worker in the bay window below tries to prevent the stone from hitting the wall with a rope. A crane of this type is said to have stood on the market in Antwerp. Another, smaller pedal crane can be seen on a lower floor. In some places of the unfinished tower one can see huts erected. This also corresponds to the reality of the time. On a large building site, each guild had its own building hut where meals were taken and tools were stored. Next to them, ladders, scaffolding and tiny people carrying out a wide variety of work are depicted very realistically. On the left in the foreground, one sees the stonemason kneeling before the king, a ceremonial that was unusual in Western Europe and probably refers to the oriental origin of the story. In Babel, it was King Nimrod, a great-grandson of Noah and the first great ruler in the re-emergence of human history, who ordered the building of the tower.

The Tower of Babel mentioned in the Bible may actually have existed. In 1913, Robert Koldewey found the foundation of a tower in Babylon in present-day Iraq, and there are about another 155 stones belonging to the construction scattered in various museums around the world. According to this, the tower had a ground plan of a square measuring 91 x 91 metres and was – as ancient writings indicate – probably seven storeys and thus about 90 metres high. A follower of the Greek writer Herodotus still saw the tower in 458 BC. When Alexander the Great entered Babylon about 130 years later, it was already in ruins. A few years ago, a mud brick with an inscription referring to the Tower of Babylon was analysed by computer tomography and dated to the sixth century BC.

The Tower of Babel is to be understood as a symbol of the arrogance of mankind. This theme hardly appears in Bruegel’s prints, but it does in his paintings. Since drawings were inexpensive, whereas oil paintings were expensive, it can be assumed that he primarily addressed his warning of hubris to the upper classes. The fact that arrogance inevitably leads to a fall was impressively translated into pictorial language by Bruegel in his work with the ominous architecture. It was probably not least the complexity of the theme, including its morality, the fantastically fantastic architecture and the meticulous, detailed reproduction of contemporary customs that made the painting world-famous. As in all of Bruegel’s paintings, a close look reveals countless fascinating stories…

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