Reading Bruegel

I bought this book on impulse because I will read anything about Bruegel. Perhaps it is my Flemish heritage that draws me to his work. I imagine my ancestors among the peasant crowds in his village scenes. It was only when I held the book in my hands that I recognized the author’s name. Toby Ferris wrote for The Dabbler, the site that first hosted my Dispatches, and he created Anatomy of Norbiton, a web site “exploring suburban life and universal failure as seen through the lens of Renaissance art.” My brother, the writer Frank Key, called it “a thing of strange and terrible beauty.” So I opened this book with heightened expectations. It would be no ordinary book about Bruegel.

There are 42 surviving paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. He lived about 42 years, his birth year of 1525 is an approximation. Ferris was 42 and had recently lost his father when he embarked on an obsessive quest to visit all the Bruegel paintings scattered in museums across Europe and America. His journeys in search of “the Bruegel Object” as he called it spread over five years. The result is a book that mixes art criticism and history with a biography of his father, memoir and travelogue with philosophical reflections on life and death. All enlightened by the cosmic drama and strange world of Bruegel’s paintings.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Copy. Original missing.

I learned something new right away. One of the most famous paintings, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, inspiration for the equally famous Auden poem, is not now considered authentic. It is a copy, one of many copies of Bruegel’s works made by his two sons and a grandson. The Younger Bruegels are not the artistic equals of the Elder, mere workmanlike copyists in the opinion of art historians. Ferris’s ruminations on the painting remind him of his adventures paragliding, one of many entertaining digressions on subjects as diverse as the bombing of Rotterdam, the cruel sport of cock-throwing, the Dunbar number, and a history of teeth in art. In fact Ferris seems like one of those figures in the crowd on a Bruegel painting, a peddler with a sack stuffed full of goods, stories to pull out at the right moment.

Bruegel represents a transitional moment in Western art, a move away from the religious subjects of medieval painting and the portraits of the elite in the early Renaissance, towards an art of the common man. Even when his subject matter was ostensibly religious, such as The Census at Bethlehem, the people are the peasants of his own time and much of the symbolism references events and customs of his own world. A typical Bruegel painting shows a crowded scene viewed from above, perhaps a God’s eye view. The people are busy, each individual at work or play in an identifiable way. In Netherlandish Proverbs, for instance, over 100 figures bring to life popular proverbs of the day, the whole a portrait of human folly. In Children’s Games 215 children play at least 90 games, many still popular today like leapfrog, gymnastics, and playing with dolls. 

Children’s Games

Much of the imagery in Bruegel’s paintings references the religious turmoil of his times. This was the period of Counter Reformation and the Inquisition when the Catholic Spanish rulers of the Netherlands attempted to crush the Protestant movement. Violence broke out several times during Bruegel’s lifetime. In 1566 there was an outbreak of iconoclasm when mobs inspired by the Protestant hedge-preachers attacked churches destroying statues and other religious imagery. In Ghent the famous Van Eyck altarpiece Het Lam Gods, already more than a century old, was only saved because it was taken apart and locked in a guarded church tower. In 1567 the Duke of Alba led a Spanish army to restore order with brutal force. The gallows and torture wheels that appear in many of Bruegel’s paintings would have been a common sight across Flanders.

The Wedding Dance

Ferris records the time he spends looking at each of the paintings and laments that it is never enough. There are always more details to take in and Bruegel’s details are precise. The hats and headdresses worn by people in the paintings are not generic, but precisely the styles that Bruegel observed in the villages surrounding Antwerp and Brussels, the two cities where he spent his life. He was said to visit them disguised in peasant dress to gather ideas. He even painted pretzels specific to locale because the shape and style of knotting varied from village to village. So too the tools of trade wielded by his industrious peasants. Bruegel’s work is invaluable to historians for all this detail of everyday life. Some details though were painted over in a more prudish age. Ferris notes the “aggressive, swinging codpieces” worn by men in The Wedding Dance which were uncovered in a 1941 restoration. Other details can seem nonsensical. Why are The Beggars wearing foxtails sewn to their clothing? Ferris explains that the foxtails were a symbol of the Beggars’ Revolt against the Spanish occupation.

Reading this book reminded me of one of my favorite novels, Headlong by Michael Frayn. Despite it being a work of fiction, I learned so much about the iconography of Bruegel’s paintings. It’s a suspenseful and comic combination of art history lesson and art heist caper. Two young academics, Martin Clay and his wife Julia, move to the English countryside where they hope to concentrate on their studies. But distraction soon appears when they visit a local couple living in genteel poverty in a dilapidated mansion. Martin sees what he believes is a long lost Bruegel painting being used as a fire screen. This is not such a far-fetched plot device as it might seem. I learned from Ferris that one of the 42 Bruegel originals was discovered in an English country mansion, no doubt the inspiration for Michael Frayn. And the missing Bruegel in the novel is actually missing, the April/May painting from a series of the Seasons. Bruegel completed the six original panels in 1566 for Nicholaes Jonghelinck, an Antwerp businessman. But they didn’t stay in his possession very long. They were confiscated in lieu of non-paid taxes. By 1659 an inventory listed the April/May panel as missing and it has never been found. 

Hunters in the Snow. Winter in the Seasons series.

In the novel Martin embarks on an obsessive dual mission to prove the painting is indeed a genuine Bruegel, and to steal it from its oblivious owners and make his fortune. In alternating chapters we follow Martin’s research into Bruegel and the progress of his madcap scheme. It is a measure of Frayn’s skill that the chapters on symbolism in Bruegel’s work are as suspenseful as the ill fated plot to steal the painting. Martin focuses on studying the five remaining Seasons panels to build evidence that the fire-screen fits into the series. Why were there six Seasons? In Flanders in the 16th century spring and summer were divided into early and late seasons following the cycle of agricultural work. Martin becomes immersed in research about the encoded symbolism in the paintings that may be clues to where Bruegel’s sympathies lay in the religious conflicts wracking Flanders. Even the type of clog dance performed by a man in one of the paintings may have a hidden meaning. By the end of the book the reader is convinced of the authenticity of the find, forgetting for the moment that it is fiction.

Bruegel also appears on my list of favorite films. The Mill and the Cross is a remarkable work by Polish director Lech Majewski. He creates a living tableaux of Bruegel’s painting The Way to Calvary, a work crowded with people, over 500 in all. In the first scene the artist walks among his subjects as they are costumed and posed. He talks with his aristocratic benefactor about the ideas and symbolism that he intends to communicate, what he means to say about his world. For though it is a traditional religious scene, as always Bruegel’s real subject is his own 16th century Flanders. He does not paint Roman soldiers leading Christ to Calvary, but the ruthless Duke of Alba and his red-coated Spanish horsemen leading a heretic to execution. The film follows the crowd of people out of the painting into the fullness of their lives at work and play and love, dancing and merriment going on in one corner while in another a mother mourns her tortured son. High above the people the windmill turns and grinds out the fates of all. The old wooden mill with its whooshing cloth covered sails and huge creaking interior gearwheels was painstakingly recreated for the film and is in some sense the central character. The Mill and the Cross casts a mesmerizing spell as it slowly unspools Bruegel’s vision of the human condition and his times.

The Way to Calvary

There is a detail in The Way to Calvary that I was unaware of before I read Toby Ferris’s book. One of the red-coated mercenaries policing the crowd, his face turned towards the viewer, has no nose. Lopping of the nose or denasatio was a punishment for criminals, notably adulterers and sodomites, a way of exiling a man from society for all time. Joining a mercenary force was one of the few options for such a marked man.

There is always more to see and understand in a Bruegel painting. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, if you are tired of looking at Bruegel you are tired of life. 

8 thoughts on “Reading Bruegel

  1. Rita, this was one of your best pieces ever-think this is the next one of yours to get picked up.

    I remember sitting at your house watching “The mill and the cross”- Your commentary was like having my own personal guide through history. I learned so much that day.

    I’m reading a fast-paced ‘beach read’ which you might enjoy eight perfect murders By Peter Swanson. Just light and frothy.

    I may ‘dress” for cocktails tonight-I used to say “buy the dress, the party will come”had to add a line-“if you can wait until December Of twenty-one.”

    Of course-the party never did come-

    See ya soon.



    1. Dorothy – Dec’21 is 17 months away: buy the dress, throw the party.
      Rita – I never studied Flemish art, but had vaguely heard of Brueghel. Thank you for an enlightening piece. I’ll look on his work in a new light.


  2. I’ve always like Bruegel’s works, especially the “Hunters in the Snow” which I refer to as “the returning hunters,” and the Icarus scene of the plowman in the foreground and the shepherd below. However, his crowd scenes usually overwhelm me, probably because I can’t view them full sized but only reproduced in a book about him.

    You have inspired me to look up both the film and the book for myself. They sound quite interesting.


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